Vox Populi: Is The Use of Polygraph Testing In Human Resources Ethical or Useful?

If you do a search on the famous phrase “You can’t handle the truth!” from the movie A Few Good Men, you will find it in a list of useless movie quotes. Ironically, it was also voted as the twenty-ninth greatest movie quote of all time by the American Film Institute.

My point is that one should be very careful when handling the truth—especially if you’re a human resource (HR) professional. That being said, the use of polygraph (better known as a lie detector) testing in HR can be quite controversial. Obviously, in such sensitive fields as national security, the benefits of its usage are apparent. But how far should you go in other, less sensitive professions?

In North America, polygraph testing is very rarely used in HR and employers or recruiters that do use it need to thoroughly justify its use. The Polygraph Protection Act clearly states: “Employers are generally prohibited from requiring or requesting any employee or job applicant to take a lie detector test”. Refusing to take such a test should not impact the recruiter’s decision to hire someone nor should it be used as a basis to fire an individual when they are part of a criminal investigation. Furthermore, when people agree to take the test and fail, the results should not be used by the company to take actions against the employee. The results of the test can only be used as evidence when legal actions against the employee are initiated.

Things are quite different in other parts of the world. In Eastern Europe for instance, I found two HR consulting companies that use polygraph testing for both recruiting and employee assessment. In both cases, it is unclear what the rights are of the people being tested: the privacy of the employee/candidate seems to be at jeopardy.

The first company I reviewed is CHR. One of the advantages of using polygraph testing, as mentioned on its Web site, is that it can “estimate employees’ loyalty, motivation, and their personal features.” I wonder how this works. Does the company use the polygraph test when the candidate says that they would like to spend the rest of their life working for a company and share its values, vision, blah, blah, blah?

The second company I reviewed, Solo HR, seems to be a bit more innovative. It offers its customers the option to “use computerized polygraph called KRIS even in open air conditions!” So, the next time you take your employees out for a picnic, take a polygraph with you—it’s going to be much more fun and you can find out which employees are the most motivated!

There are no HR consulting companies in North America doing polygraph testing. When required, recruiters or HR professionals use the services of specialized companies (see the American Polygraph Association). From the same Web site, we also learn that “To date, there has been only a limited number of research projects on the accuracy of polygraph testing in the pre-employment context, primarily because of the difficulty in establishing ground truth.”

In conclusion, the use of polygraph testing in HR can prove to be useful under very specific circumstances (national security agencies, companies dealing with confidential data, lawsuits, etc.)—and it can be even ethical if we consider that the nation’s security is more important than the privacy of the individual.
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