How to be a good witness
Updated: Mar 16
There are particular traits that can turn a good witness at an Employment Tribunal hearing into an exceptional witness.
I have listed some of those traits below which may help an honest witness be more persuasive when it comes to giving evidence at a hearing.
You may dress “smart, but casual” if you want. You may prefer to be more “formal” and wear a suit or similar attire if you prefer. It doesn’t matter if you wear the same every day, it's better to respect the Tribunal process than to show you are a fashionable dresser.
Conduct during the hearing
Switch off your mobile phone or turn the volume down. Most importantly, don’t let it go off in the hearing room or during the hearing as this could be viewed as being very disrespectful.
You must stand when the Judge and Tribunal members enter or leave the hearing room.
If the Judge is a woman, you may address her as “Ma’am.” If the Judge is a man you may address him as “Sir.” Do not refer to the Judge as “your honour” or anything similar. In my experience, Judges do not like being addressed incorrectly.
Keep your hands and feet still and do not fidget.
Sit straight, do not slouch.
Look at anyone who asks you questions and keep looking at them and when you answer. This tends to show that you are receptive to what’s being asked and that you’re being open and honest with your reply.
Maintain a pleasant demeanour at all times.
Act naturally, be yourself.
Read and re-read the relevant case documents.
The more the documents are reviewed, the better witness you will make. If you know the documents, you will be less likely to make a harmful mistake. Also, the more you know the documents, the more confidence you will have and exude as a witness.
Never assume that a quoted statement is actually in a document, or that the document says exactly what the other side's representative says in his or her questions. The representative may be putting his or her spin or interpretation on it.
When questioned about a document, you can ask to read it before responding.
Questions and answers
Do not ask your own questions (unless you are looking for clarification about something you don’t understand). Remember, you are not at the hearing to ask questions, you are there to answer them.
If you can't recall specific dates, say so, after all, the events you are being asked about may have happened some time ago.
But do try to memorise important dates.
Credibility and likeability are the keys. Think carefully at all times before you speak.
Speak up so that you can be easily heard. Speak slowly, the Employment Judge will be taking notes and will need time to write what you say. Try not to get yourself in a situation where the Judge or the other side’s representative asks you to speak slowly because they are making notes and cannot keep up.
Answer with words, not gestures. For example, 'yes/no,' not nods or 'un-huhs.'
Speak directly, plainly, respectfully and fully responsive to any questions you are asked.
Do not try to avoid questions.
You do not need to speak “politely.” In fact, if this is not the way you normally speak you could come across as sounding insincere and untrustworthy. Just speak naturally in a clear and calm voice.
Be honest, tell the truth. It is often easier to deal with truthful, although bad facts than the loss of credibility caused by untruthfulness.
Do not be evasive or obstructive with your answers. If there is a factual point that cannot be reasonably disputed, let it come out in a way that appears you have no hesitation about telling the truth. Remember, you will be on oath, or you will have averred to tell the truth. If you are evasive or obstructive, this will often be interpreted as an indication that overall you have been dishonest.
Respond only to questions, not to statements.
Do not respond to pregnant pauses or silences, just wait to be asked a question.
Do not be too animated when answering questions.
If you come across as too assertive, you may not engender sympathy.
Avoid any attempts at humour as this may not come across right in such a situation.
If you don’t know the answer to a question, then say so, you can say something like, 'I don't know.' Those types of answers virtually never hurt unless they are over used.
Try not to say:
'I assume so . . .'
'I guess . . .'
'If you say so . . .'
Avoid beginning phrases by saying things like:
'In all honesty . . .'
'Truthfully . . .'
'Frankly . . .'
'Honestly . . .'
Try to avoid justifying things by answering, 'I did it because' or minimising the effect of anything you did by answering, 'It wasn't that bad.'
Listen carefully to any questions and what exactly is being asked. Only answer those questions, don’t go off on a tangent and speak about some other non-related question or give “self-serving” answers.
Consider all remarks “on the record.”
Think about where the question might be leading you and consider your answer before blurting it out. Remember, the other side's representative will know where he or she is going. You probably won't.
Do not act irritated by questions from the other side’s representative. Answer them in a straightforward way and be respectful.
When answering questions, do not speculate, guess, assume, estimate, exaggerate and be careful about stating opinions. Your opinion will not count as much as the opinion of the Employment Tribunal.
As a rule of thumb, watch the Employment Judge’s pen, if he or she is writing what you are saying, then the Judge is interested in this part of your evidence. It’s a good idea to stop speaking when the Judge stops writing, after all you may have made your point.