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Three Rules for an Unemployment Interview or Hearing

If you are a Wisconsin worker with an unemployment application pending, you may have a phone interview or hearing coming up. If you do, you will soon be answering questions from a legal authority in the unemployment process.

Before you have a phone interview or hearing- that is, before you start answering questions as a witness- please consider these Three Rules.

Rule 1: Listen to each question, very carefully.

Rule 2: Answer ONLY the question you were asked (without volunteering extra information, explaining yourself, or telling your "side").

Rule 3: Tell the truth.

These rules sound simple, right? They are easy enough to understand. But they are very hard to follow.

Once you are in the moment, and engaged in the question-and-answering process, your human instinct will urge you to violate these rules at every turn.

Here's an example of how many workers fail to follow the rules (I probably would too, if I didn't have the benefit of repeat experience with the process).

PHONE INTERVIEWER (or JUDGE): What did the employer tell you was the reason for your termination?

EMPLOYEE: They told me I yelled and talked back to my boss and that I was "insubordinate." That wasn't true. I have never talked back to my boss or so much as raised my voice. HR never even asked me for my side of what happened. If HR had just talked to me and my coworkers, they would have known I never talked back to anyone. My boss was the one constantly harassing people; he yelled at lots of people.

Notice this is the kind of response that human instinct will WANT to say. But the answer given does NOT answer the question presented. This kind of answer- no matter how true its components may be- is exactly the kind of answer that makes witnesses lose credibility (and at times, their unemployment benefits) in the determination of the questioning unemployment official.

An employee following the 3 rules would realize that the first sentence of the answer above ("They told me... I was 'insubordinate'") is the only information needed to answer the question that was asked ("What did the employer tell you...").

Employees commonly get into trouble by hearing the question as they WANT to hear it, e.g. hearing the unemployment official's question above as if it were this: "What did the employer tell you, and explain to me why the employer is wrong and you're right?"

All that extra stuff- the need to give an explanation of your "side"- is what your instincts will want to spill out of you. You've got to keep a lid on that. The easiest way to keep the lid on is to listen carefully to the question. If you listen to exactly what is asked of you, then you'll know that any information beyond what's asked is too much.

Thus the Three Rules. If you're going to be an attentive and effective witness, then it's critical that you listen to each question carefully, respond with exactly the information you're asked for (and no more), and respond truthfully.

And telling the truth, by the way, is more than just not lying.

In a way, the response above is not truthful, even if its volunteered/excessive facts (e.g. "My boss was the one constantly harassing people") are true and supported by evidence. While it's not a "lie" to volunteer your side of the true facts, it's nonetheless not being straight-forward. That is, telling your story- when the question did not ASK you to- is a way of being evasive and defensive.

Much of my unemployment legal work involves helping employees internalize the Three Rules. It is common for employees to violate the rules, left and right, and often it takes me a good deal of practice and question-and-answer role play with employees until they internalize the rules and adopt the function of a witness. Employees often tell me, "yeah, yeah, I understand the rules, let's move on"- but then we practice with some questions, and once on the hot seat, the employees realize that the Three Rules aren't so easy to adopt in real-time.

There are of course other important things to know and prepare for before you attend a phone interview and hearing. It's important to know which facts and issues are important, which ones are not, and which ones may annoy your questioner or even lose your benefits on the spot.

But the Three Rules come into play before you even think about the facts of what occurred. The Three Rules are a matter of discipline, and understanding your place as an employee-claimant within the unemployment system. Your role is that of a witness. And the essential function of a witness is to listen to each question carefully, and to answer it precisely and truthfully. If you do not properly understand and accept that role, then you could run into problems with the unemployment process, regardless of the merits and factual circumstances of how your job ended.

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