The polygraph and Honesty Testing

Some firms still use the polygraph (or lie detector) for honesty, even though current law severely restricts its use. The polygraph is advice that measures physiological changes like increased perspiration. The assumption is that such changes reflect changes in emotional state that accompany lying.

Complaints about offensiveness plus grave doubts about the polygraph’s accuracy culminated in the Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988. With a few exceptions, the law prohibits employers from conducting polygraph examinations of all job applicants and most employees. Also prohibited under this law are other mechanical or electrical devices that attempt to measure honesty or dishonesty, including psychological stress evaluators and voice stress analyzers. Federal laws don’t prohibit paper-and-pencil tests and chemical testing [as for drugs. Local state and federal government employers (including the FBI) can continue to use polygraph exams, but many local and state government employers are further restricted under state laws.

Other employers permitted to use polygraph tests include: Industries with national defense or security contracts; certain businesses with nuclear power related contracts with the Department of Energy; businesses and consultants with access to highly classified information; those with counter intelligence related contracts with the FBI or Department of Justice and private businesses that are (1) hiring private security personnel, (2) hiring persons with access to drugs (3) doing on going investigation involving economic loss or injury to an employer’s business, such as a theft.

Even in the case of ongoing investigations of theft the law restricts employers’ rights. To administer such a test during an ongoing investigation and employer must meet four standards. First, the employer must show that it suffered an economic loss or injury. Second, it must show that the employee in question had access to the property. Third, it must have a reasonable suspicion before asking the employee to take the polygraph. Fourth, the employee must be told the details of the investigation before the test, as well as the questions to be asked on the polygraph test itself.

Paper and Pencil Honesty tests: The virtual elimination of the polygraph as a screening device triggered a burgeoning market for other types of honesty testing devices. Paper and pencil honesty tests are psychological tests designed to predict job applicants’ proneness to dishonesty and other forms of counter productivity. Most of these tests measures attitudes regarding things like tolerance of others who steal acceptance of rationalize for theft, and admission of theft related activities. Tests include the phase II profile, owned by Wackenhut Corporation of Coral Gables, Florida London House, Inc., and Stanton Corporation publish similar tests.

Psychologists initially raised concerns about the proliferation of paper and pencil honesty tests, but recent studies support the validity of these selection tools. One study focused on 111 employees hired by a major retail convenience store chain to work at store or gas station counters. The firm estimated that ‘shrinkage’ equaled 3% of sales, and internal theft was believed to account for much of this. The researchers found that scores on an honesty test successfully predicted theft in this study, as measured by termination for theft. One large scale review of the use of such tests for measuring honesty, integrity, conscientiousness dependability, trustworthiness, and reliability concluded that the pattern of findings regarding the usefulness of such tests continues to be consistently positive.

Paper and pencil personality testing may also help companies predict white collar crime. Subjects in one study included 329 federal prison inmates incarcerated for white collar crime and 344 individuals from several mid-western firms employed in white collar positions. Researchers administered three instruments, including the California psychological inventory (a personality inventory), the Employment Inventory (a second personality inventory), and a bio-data scale. They concluded that there are large and measurable psychological difference between white collar offenders and non-offenders and that it was possible to use a personality based integrity test to differentiate between the two.