The importance of capturing memory in an empirically researched way

Written by Mick Confrey, Managing Director of Intersol Global.


Person A walks into a police station and tells the desk officer that they have been subjected to a sexual assault at work. The desk officer will likely take minimal details and then pass the person onto a specially trained officer. Forensic evidence is gathered from Person A by medical staff usually at a Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC). Person A will be signposted to welfare support from a variety of agencies and charities should they wish to use those services.

Person B walks into an HR department and tells the first staff member they see that they have been subjected to a sexual assault at work. The HR staff member will likely discuss the options available – do nothing, go to the police, or have the matter investigated under the company discipline procedure if there is one (and the limitations that involves). If ‘B’, making that informed choice, decides that they want the company to investigate, then, unless the company identify a risk to the wider community/staff, their wishes will be respected, and an investigation will be conducted under the discipline policies and procedures of that company.

In most workplaces, Person B can still be signposted to a SARC and welfare support from the same agencies and charities.


Both have reported being subjected to a sexual assault. Person A’s report is being dealt with as a criminal investigation with the standard of proof ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ in mind and in the context of statutory criminal law, whilst B’s as sexual misconduct with the lower standard ‘balance of probabilities in mind and in the context of civil discipline policies.

In both investigations, the reporting person’s memory of the incident is the starting point of the whole criminal or civil investigation and is likely to be critical to it. A memory of events is the memory of events regardless of the standard of proof it may be subject to.

Empirical research clearly identifies that in most cases a trauma-informed cognitive interview process, an understanding of how the memory works and how trauma can impact the memory, is the best and most productive way to obtain a reliable and fulsome account from a person reporting such incidents.

In the case of Person A, they will not normally be asked to write down what happened to them, as it has been found that if a specially trained officer interviews Person A to obtain their evidence using an empirically researched trauma-informed cognitive interview process, the interview will yield around 40% more detail than a standard interview or asking the person to write down what has happened to them.

In the case of ‘B’, since most discipline policies start with a written complaint, they will likely be asked to write that official complaint. In many cases, the process of writing the complaint forces them to revisit the trauma, sometimes unsupported, or if supported the supporter may be untrained and the untrained supporting person’s comments may inadvertently impact on Person B’s memory of the events.

Once the written complaint is submitted then Person B will attend an investigation meeting with a staff member who may or may not be trauma-informed, if they are not then it will be a standard interview.

So, if we know about the empirical research around trauma-led cognitive interviews (and it’s been out there for quite a while now), why do many workplaces insist that persons reporting sexual misconduct make a written report/complaint before they are interviewed by an investigator?

I have heard the argument that they are civil investigations and criminal investigations are entirely different processes. I will accept that, particularly in the UK, with the numerous sections of the Sexual Offences Act, the level of detail required around the sexual act is far more detailed in a criminal process to show which of the many sections may have been contravened, likewise that the standard of proof is far higher than the civil.

Be that as it may, that level of detail impacts the probing questions phase of a cognitive interview which can be less intrusive in a civil case. It does not however change how the research tells us the memory works, particularly the impact of trauma.

Intersol Global is an external impartial investigation service commissioned by numerous clients in the UK, employing specialist investigators trained and experienced in conducting trauma-informed investigations. Several of our clients have worked with us to improve their internal policies and procedures so that now when a member of staff reports sexual misconduct, they are not asked to write down what happened to them. Instead, they are asked to submit a report stating where and when the reported events took place, and whom they are reporting as responsible if known.

The reporting party is then promptly interviewed by a qualified Intersol Global specialist investigator using trauma-informed cognitive interview techniques to obtain the details of what happened. The client is then updated and can make the decision dependent on the severity of the reported events and/or the trauma impact on the reporting party, as to whether the reported incident is investigated by internally trained investigators, or the investigation is continued by Intersol Global.

If you feel that this is a better approach to your staff reporting sexual misconduct, drop us a message, and we can help:

+44 (0) 1925 982680.