This article prepares you as a witness at a disciplinary hearing or the CCMA
Top 10 Tips to Being a Star Witness
Article by Dundas-Wilson (UK solicitors)
First published in People Management magazine.
This article was written for UK readers but applies equally in the SA context.
The number of people called as witnesses in employment tribunals continues to rise as claims increase. What happens if your are in the firing line? “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail” is the answer.
1. Stay cool.
Giving evidence can be a nerve-racking business and everyone dreads cross-examination, but don’t let your nerves get the better of you. Think of it as a job interview. The tribunal panel want to see confident witnesses who answers the questions clearly.
Remember the tribunal is supposed to be less formal than a court. Your solicitors should guide you on giving evidence. They will prepare you for the questions they will be asking, and should protect you from being badgered by the opposite side’s solicitor.
2. Use the bundle.
You will be referred to the bundle of documents your solicitor has put together while you’re giving evidence. For example, it might contain the minutes of a disciplinary meeting you are being questioned on. Familiarising yourself before the hearing with what’s in it, particularly the claim and your organisation’s response, can soothe nerves.
3. Speak for yourself.
When you have direct knowledge of an issue, avoid using the word “we” – the tribunal is interested only in your evidence. If you were the dismissing officer, it was you who dismissed, not you and a number of others. Using “we” in these circumstances could smack of collusion.
4. Go slow.
Nothing irritates a tribunal panel more than constantly having to ask a witness to slow down while giving evidence. Look at the panel while answering questions. If they are scribbling furiously with furrowed brows, try to slow down. It is important they get your evidence down correctly.
5. Thinking time.
There are no prizes for anticipating questions or answering questions that have not been asked, so listen carefully and think before you answer. The panel will be more persuaded by a sensible, considered answer than a rushed one. If you do not understand the question, ask for it to be repeated before you attempt to give an answer.
6. Be brief.
The more you talk the more you can tie yourself in knots. There is often a pause when a witness has answered a question because the solicitors and the panel are noting down what has been said. It is natural to want to fill this silence with further evidence don’t.
7. Be helpful.
Your evidence is more likely to be persuasive if you can show the tribunal you are trying to answer the questions as well as you can. Rebut anything put to you during cross-examination which is not true or accurate, but do not be uncooperative.
8. Address the panel.
This may seem strange given the solicitor asking the questions will be sitting at a completely different angle to you from the panel, but they need to hear your answers, not just the solicitor.
Solicitors try to make witnesses contradict themselves with clever questioning. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security if they are playing “Mr Nice Guy”. It is their job to try to trip you up on your evidence. So be prepared.
10. No surprises.
Don’t hide anything from your solicitor. If you have done something that may affect the case negatively, tell your solicitor as soon as possible and certainly before the hearing. There is nothing worse after months of preparation than hearing evidence for the first time in the tribunal that completely undermines the case.