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Tell the truth: Can you use polygraph tests in the workplace?

by , 18 November 2015
The polygraph test stands, to this day, as a symbol of supposed scientific genius. I myself have heard many employers claim that its incredible ability to catch out thieves (employees who are accused of stealing from their business) is unrivalled.

But on closer inspection, it's not just the legal validity behind polygraph tests that raises eyebrows, but the very scientific premise on which it relies all too confidently.

What am I trying to say? Well, it's simple, polygraph testing isn't only heavily doubted by our labour laws, but many researchers, including psychologists, doubt the very foundation on which it's built.

The legal side

If you're an employer who uses polygraph tests, then, according to one interpretation, you'll need to ensure the test meets the following 3 requirements:

·        The test is scientifically valid and reliable;
·        You can apply it fairly to all employees; and
·        It doesn't show bias against any employee or group.

Now, while these requirements stand,  the Professional Board for Psychology, which is responsible for validating psychological tests, say that polygraph testing is completely unreliable and that using them is illegal.


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On doing some desktop research, it's not hard to realise why they say this…

Countless academics are very sceptical towards the 'test', with evolutionary psychologist Nigel Barber (Ph.D.) referring to it as a modern form of 'trial by ordeal' – a test, in bygone days, in which the innocence of an individual was determined by whether or not he escaped deliberately-inflicted pain or danger. If he survived, he was innocent, but if he died, well then, he was guilty.

It's also been emphasised that the term 'lie detector' is inaccurate as there's no proven link between physiological changes in the body and deceit itself. And the fact of the matter is that, validity studies can't be done because, in real-world scenarios, it's difficult to know what 'truth' is, according to a Dr. Saxe and Israeli psychologist Gershon Ben-Shahar (1999).
*So then, why know all of this? Well, if you're an employer who uses 'lie detection' tests as 'proof', then you should rather think again.

Turning down a job applicant because of failing a polygraph test, or dismissing an employee for doing so, can land you up in the CCMA.
Instead, it's best to rely on other evidence when disciplining or dismissing an employee, or to use other screening tools when searching for job applicants (such as psychometric testing).

If you're really adamant on polygraph testing, then click here to find out 6 instances in which you can do so.

But always remember, you can't use  their results  as conclusive evidence. Although, you can use their results as supporting evidence to other more concrete evidence. In other words, you'll still need to prove that the employee is guilty of the accused transgression.

Also keep in mind that unless an employee's employment contract clearly states that he may be required to undergo polygraph tests, you can't force them to do so. On top pf that, employees will be required to sign a consent form before any testing takes place.

At the end of the day, it's important for you to seriously contemplate polygraph testing's validity, alongside the view our legal system gives it. It will then be up to you, as an employer, to decide if they are really worth it.

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