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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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Comments
1 comments


Jock 2016-09-07 12:48:54

I find the title of this article extremely ironic considering the amount of misinformation and misrepresentation of facts given in the article . . .

Let's start with this: "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." Really? This board determines what is and what is not legal? First and foremost, this board has no say in the legality of polygraph tests and if there was any truth to this statement then the examinations would not be accepted at all in CCMA, arbitration, disciplinary hearings etc. which they are. The fact is that they can be accepted based on the judgement of the commissioner or chairman or judge and they will decide how much weight to give to the examination based on the credibility of the examiner - which is exactly the same way they decide whether or not to use the testimony or professional witness statements from psychologists. The fact is that most psychologists have no idea to the working of polygraph examinations and tend to form their judgements based on ancient techniques and historical hearsay which is almost as scientifically accurate as the in depth “desktop research” conducted by the writer.

So the fact is that polygraph is completely legal. The onus of the employer is to ensure that it is applied in a manner that is procedurally fair and correct . . . just like pretty much anything else.

“but many researchers, including psychologists, doubt the very foundation on which it's built:” Based on what information exactly? Many researchers claim that vaccinations are causing autism in babies. Many researchers claim that butter is bad, no wait, margarine is bad . . . oh both are bad, no no butter is the healthiest thing ever now right? That depends on which year you ask the researchers, and who you ask. The fact is that is that the majority of studies have given certain polygraph techniques fantastic reviews which is why even today it is being introduced to be used as part of diagnostic testing in America Sex Offender rehabilitation uses polygraph screenings with great success. Let me help you with your phrasing: Some psychologists doubt the theory on which the principles of polygraph examinations were designed. They are not wrong to question these principles and these principles are being questioned by the APA themselves and the fact is that these principles are being scrutinized. What you would notice when reading most of the anti-polygraph articles written by psychologists is that they tend to agree that the practical application does work, they simply struggle to correlate the theory with practice, and this simply means more research needs to be conducted in that area which they simply do not feel inclined to do.

Literally hundreds of studies have been conducted regarding the validity and reliability of the polygraph examinations and the vast majority agree that some techniques do work very well and some don’t these studies are published in academic journals which is probably where you should be looking for proper infomration rather than blogs and “desktop research studies” – which is why the debate is still raging on today because people tend to lump them together. As an example the R&I technique has been found to be an extremely poor performer while the ZCT Specific to be an excellent performer. Even Mr Maschke, the founder of anti-polygraph.org stated clearly that even he knows one technique that is scientifically valid and reliable. Again, this is not new and you will find that the R&I technique is no longer used by any professional organization. Yet that is the technique that is still continuously quoted when people state that the all the examinations are inaccurate. The fact is that if people stopped quoting 15 year old research have another look at your in depth “desktop research articles” and look at the dates of the research papers mentioned – also note that Saxe has been quoted in almost every single anti-polygraph conversation because he is one of the few people used even today to discredit the industry despite the fact that is work is completely outdated and out of touch with current conditions, looked at the current status of research and most importantly stopped trying to lump the entire industry together instead of looking at the validity and reliability of the individual techniques then you will find a whole different picture. As a final example of this point, when reading the CCMA articles regarding polygraph examinations you will find again that one of the anti-polygraph supporters gleefully talks about the voice-stress “polygraphs” and then proceeds to quote the horrifying research of VSA tests and apply them to polygraphs. That is a completely ludicrous practice as the two is not related in any way shape or form and you will find that the majority of polygraph examiners do not endorse the use of voice stress knowing full well it does not work.

“It's also been emphasized 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.” – Well again just look at that date. You might want to brush up as there has been determined that there is a correlation between certain physiological reactions and the act of being deceptive on a statistically significant level – the dispute comes in on the theoretical foundation for this correlation. So, let us recap, the term ‘lie-detector’ is a term of convenience and refers to what is in fact considered an examination performed on a diagnostic model in which a subject is exposed to stimuli, the instrument monitors for the presence or lack of certain variables used as proximity data which has been correlated to the act of being deceptive. As the correlation has been cited on a statistically significant level it means that the physiological reactions can be used as proxy data to determine the likelihood of a person being dishonest. In simple terms, the practical application of polygraph examinations is considered valid if done properly.

“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.” – Now I am certain that this article was written based on an interview with a psychologist since you are literally punting psychological tests. Psychometric testing is a great tool for screening job applicants but to infer that it is more reliable or valid than a polygraph examination is simply incorrect you might want to do some “desktop research there too”. Polygraph measures the past, Psychometrics measures possible future behavior. Also, no professional polygraph examiner will advise a client to use a polygraph examination as the sole evidence in any case. Polygraph examinations are not a hundred percent correct you know what else is not a hundred percent correct? Pretty much every medical or psychological test in existence – maybe we should completely shut down the entire medical field then?, and it would be irresponsible for anyone to use the examination as the only determinant in any charges. What it can do is assist the investigation greatly and it can be used as supporting evidence. How much weight is assigned to the examination is greatly determined by the qualifications of the examiner and his / her credibility. In other words, polygraph examinations do not replace an investigation, it assists an investigation, and like any tool if it is used properly it can be of tremendous help, if not used correctly it can do a lot of harm. Soap did not replace water, but it did make the cleaning process a whole lot easier.

“If you're really adamant on polygraph testing, then click here to find out 6 instances in which you can do so.” – So first and foremost if it was illegal then there would be zero instances. Secondly, these “6” instances are extremely wide and essentially what they are saying in summary: you can use a polygraph examination to assist in any investigation if the person was capable of committing the crime would you have any reason to investigate someone that could not possibly be involved in the matter under investigation? and you are allowed to randomly screen employees if they have a position of trust – which means any employee that can be argued to be in a position to harm the company or clients with dishonest behavior.

“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.” This entire statement is wrong. Section 35 B of the South African Constitution states that in essence a person has the right not to give evidence which can be used against them and basically they have the right to remain silent. Since polygraph examinations can be used as part of a bundle of evidence this section dictates that a person has the right to refuse the polygraph examination and the refusal in itself cannot be used to punish the individual, however the investigators can infer from the refusal whatever they wish. So if a person is contracted to do a test but he or she refuses it becomes contract law vs constitutional law.

The fact is you cannot force any person to do a polygraph examination in as much as you can force a person to testify, give a statement or any information regarding the matters under investigation. However, in the same way a person does not need to have a clause in a contract before you can request them to do the examinations. In short it depends on whether or not the employee is willing to cooperate with the investigation. In general, most employees innocent of the matter tends to be happy to volunteer for the examination to remove themselves from the investigation. People tend to forget that the examinations are not simply used to damn guilty persons, but also to assist the innocent persons.

The long and the short of it is simple, every single time this topic comes up people continue to regurgitate the same studies that was conducted between the 1970s and 1990s and use it to make the same findings that more research should be conducted . . . why doesn’t anyone actually do the research. Associations like the American Polygraph Association have actually requested for continuous research and statistical analysis that has already made remarkable improvements to the field refer to the work done by the statistician Dr Raymond Nelson and his team, but this is never mentioned nor cited because when the topic does come up everyone simply falls back to rechewing the Saxe study and conveniently ignoring the 250 other studies that were conducted in which it was found scientifically valid and reliable. Don’t take my word for it though, feel free to contact the APA and request the research and documentation for yourself.

In the words of the British Psychological Society while discussing the quality of research into polygraph tests: ‘Forensic science has not kept up with the state of science more generally for two basic reasons: the legal community’s basic ignorance of science and statistics, and the lack of interest among research scientists in the practical and especially forensic applications of science. In lie detection, for instance, policy makers have not demanded better work, and few scientists have been interested in pursuing the subject. This powerful combination of ignorance and apathy has …”

‘The NRC review noted that the USA government had not made a serious effort to help develop the scientific basis of physiological or other methods of lie detection. Such a criticism also applies in Britain. What is needed is an expanded research programme on various possible methods to be administered by an organization independent of those with vested interests in one or more possible methods for detecting deception.’

The vested interest is where it becomes a problem, because at this point the people really doing the work and the research have made some fascinating discoveries, but they are ignored because they allegedly have a “vested interest,” and in the meantime the rest of the world keeps regurgitating the same ancient paper without offering any further propositions or advancements.

So the facts are thus: It is perfectly legal to conduct polygraph examinations in the workplace. They should be conducted by a qualified professional who is a member of a professional body. The correct protocols and procedures should be followed, and if a company is not sure of the correct protocols or procedures the examiner should be able to inform the company all the more reason to only use reputable and professional companies. The polygraph should be understood and implemented correctly. They should be used to assist in an investigation and to strengthen other evidence during proceedings.
Now I am not vested, but this article highlights an ongoing ignorance to the proper use and legalities of polygraph examinations, which wouldn’t be an issue if the writer didn’t put these words down as “facts” instead of the unsubstantiated opinions which they are. Why this is an issue is that it is feeding misinformation into the cycle of ignorance regarding the subject.

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