Polygraphs & the Workplace

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  • 0:05 Polygraphs
  • 0:43 Polygraphs in the Workplace
  • 2:44 Risks & Issues with Polygraphs
  • 4:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joseph Madison

Joseph received his Doctorate from UMUC in Management. He retired from the Army after 23 years of service, working in intelligence, behavioral health, and entertainment.

This lesson discusses what a polygraph is, how it can be used in the workplace, and the risks and limitations of a polygraph test. Additionally, it will cover when the polygraph might be used within a business environment.


A polygraph or lie detector test evokes images of people strapped to a chair, sweating nervously as they are grilled about their nefarious after-hour activities. However, this piece of technology is not nearly as exciting. The polygraph machine doesn't detect lies but instead measures heart rate, blood pressure and perspiration. The polygraph administrator will begin by asking standard questions, like ''What is your name?'' and ''Where do you live?'' The responses to those questions will provide a baseline, or starting point. Then, when serious questions are asked, it is easier for the administrator to form a comparison.

Polygraphs in the Workplace

Polygraphs may be used for prospective federal employees and those already employed by the government or those employed with companies conducting government business when security clearance is required. There are two types of polygraphs in this type of situation: criminal intelligence and lifestyle polygraphs.

  • Criminal intelligence polygraphs are used for lower levels of security clearance and to screen potential candidates for the possibility of terrorism, crimes against the company, slander, or sabotage.
  • Lifestyle polygraphs are reserved for the highest level of security clearance and are geared to delve deeper than criminal tendencies by looking into personal activities such as alcohol and/or drug use, family members and sexual proclivities. This invasive polygraph screens against the threat of blackmail. This is the only polygraph where personal information and sexual tendencies may be questioned.

Before 1988, polygraphs could be used in a private company to determine whether someone should be fired or promoted. Additionally, companies could inquire about previous tests done in an employee's past. However, in 1988, Congress passed the Employee Polygraph Protection Act, which prohibits businesses in the private sector from requiring employees to submit to polygraph tests. Private companies can no longer use or require a lie detector test. They also cannot look into previous tests or threaten employees with a polygraph in hopes of getting the employee to answer questions.

These exams are no longer allowed unless the employee is suspected of serious criminal activities that could actually harm others or cause the company serious financial ruin. Things that might fall under this would be:

  • Theft
  • Embezzlement
  • Fraud

If the polygraph is used for this purpose, the polygraph administrator must be a licensed and bonded test provider. The test must be given in private, and the exam must be professional and respectful. Furthermore, the results are to remain confidential.

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