COACH's Pop Quiz!

The owner of the apartment complex you manage has asked you to investigate a sexual harassment complaint about a maintenance employee made by a tenant at another one of the owner’s properties. Because you have no work relationship with anyone at that property, the owner believes you can conduct an impartial investigation. In addition to interviewing the complaining tenant and the accused staff member, you plan to interview the tenant’s neighbor who claims to have witnessed the staff member grope the tenant. You know you have to phrase your questions carefully and avoid asking leading questions.

Which of the following is NOT a leading question?

a.            Did you see the employee sexually harass the tenant?

b.            Did you hear the employee tell the tenant an offensive sexual joke?

c.             Did you see the employee behave inappropriately with the tenant?

d.            What did you see the employee do when he was with the tenant?



Reason: This situation illustrates an important pitfall to avoid when investigating a sexual harassment complaint: asking leading questions.

Witness interviews are typically the most crucial part of a sexual harassment investigation. The integrity and reliability of the information that witnesses provide depends not just on what questions investigators ask the witnesses but how they phrase those questions. Whether deliberate or inadvertent, interviews can go awry when investigators ask “leading questions”—that is, questions phrased to set up the witness to respond in a certain way.

Choices a., b. and c. are all examples of leading questions. By contrast, the question “What did you see the employee do when he was with the tenant,” is phrased in a neutral, open-ended way that enables the witness to describe what he actually saw in his own words without having to draw a conclusion or offer a personal opinion about the appropriateness of the employee’s behavior and whether it constituted harassment. And in providing just the facts, these answers pave the way for an objective determination of whether the behavior crossed the line. Thus, d. is the correct answer.

Wrong answers explained:

a.            The statement that “X person committed sexual harassment” is a legal conclusion based on X’s behavior. The reason a. is a leading question is that it invites the witness to offer an opinion instead of furnishing the facts about the manager’s conduct on which that conclusion should be based.

b.            This is also a leading question, only this time the witness is being led to confirm that the manager engaged in behavior that potentially constitutes sexual harassment—that is, telling unwelcome sexual jokes.

c.             This is a leading question because it elicits a subjective conclusion—that is, whether the manager engaged in “inappropriate behavior.”

For more guidance on investigating claims of sexual harassment at your community, see our June lesson, “10 Pitfalls to Avoid When Responding to a Sexual Harassment Complaint,” available to subscribers here.