The Polygraph and Honesty Testing

Some firms still use the polygraph (or lie detector) for honesty testing, although current law severely restricts its use. The polygraph is a device 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].

Who can use the polygraph: 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 departments of Justice; and private businesses that are (1) hiring private security personnel, (2) hiring persons with access to drugs or (3) doing ongoing investigations 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:

1) First, the employer must show that it served an economic loss or injury.
2) Second, it must show that the employee in question had access to the property.
3) Third, it must have a reasonable suspicion before asking the employee to take the polygraph.
4) Fourth, the employee must be told the details of the investigation before the test, as well as 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 paper and pencil honesty tests. These are psychological tests designed to predict job applicant’s proneness to dishonesty and other forms of counter productivity. Most of these tests measure attitudes regarding things like tolerance of others who steal, acceptance of rationalizations or thefts, and admissions of theft related activities. Tests include the Phase II profile. London House Inc., and Stanton Corporation publish similar tests.

Psychologists initially raised concerns about the proliferation of paper and pencil honesty tests, but studies support these tests validity. 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 believed that internal theft accounted for much of this. Scores on an honesty test successfully predicted theft here, as measured by termination for theft. Subjects in another study included 329 federal prison inmates incarcerated for white-collar crime and 344 individuals from several Midwestern firms employed in white collar positions. Researchers administered 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 differences between white collar offenders and non-offenders and that it was possible to use a personality based integrity test to differentiate between the two. One large scale review of the use of such tests concluded that the pattern of findings regarding the usefulness of such tests continues to be consistently positive.

Some suggest that by possibly signaling mental illness, integrity tests may conflict with the Americans the Disabilities Act, but one review concludes these tests pose little such legal risk employers.