Right to refuse – Can employers legally require polygraph testing?

Polygraph testing, commonly known as lie detector tests, has long been a controversial issue in employment. While some argue lie detectors reveal dishonest employees, others see them as an invasion of privacy and ridden with inaccuracies.

Legality of mandatory polygraph testing

EPPA of 1988 prohibits employers from requiring employees to undergo polygraph testing. Polygraph tests are prohibited for most private employers under this law. Polygraph testing does not apply to employers who provide security services. Government agencies like the FBI and NSA require testing, as public sector employers in some states. Overall though, mandatory lie detector tests have been banned for most private companies since the late 1980s.

Some employers try getting around the EPPA by having employees sign consent forms agreeing to take polygraph tests. However, voluntariness is assessed based on whether an employee had a meaningful choice. Consent under threat of adverse employment action does not seem voluntary. Truly voluntary polygraph testing is allowed, but it’s a narrow gray area. In short, the EPPA prohibits most employers from legally requiring polygraph testing. Doing so results in fines and penalties from the Department of Labor. Very limited exceptions exist, but blanket mandatory testing is not legal for private companies. Employers request voluntary testing in certain circumstances, but coercion nullifies consent.

Efficacy and accuracy of polygraph testing

Assuming lie detector test locations across USAwas legal, many dispute whether it’s effective for employment screening. Polygraph testing measures physiological responses like heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and sweating. The premise is that deception causes bodily changes that are detected. However, the accuracy of polygraphs is controversial. Estimates of polygraph accuracy vary widely in studies, ranging from 70-95% accurate. However, the American Psychological Association reports 57% average accuracy, not much better than chance. Potential reasons for inaccuracy include:

  • Nervousness or medical conditions affect results without deception
  • Countermeasures like muscle tensing fool the test
  • Different levels of examiner skill affect readings
  • Lying well or wrongly believing something to be true affects the results

Most cases prohibit polygraph evidence in court because of such issues. Experts disagree on the reliability of polygraphs. At best, results may be indicative but not conclusive. Employers who rely on polygraphs for hiring decisions risk making inaccurate assumptions about truthfulness.

Beyond the questionable accuracy, requiring polygraph testing raises ethical issues regarding privacy and workplace rights. Critics see mandatory lie detector tests as intrusive, like demanding medical tests or genetic screening. Employers argue polygraphs are needed to weed out undesirable employees, but opponents see overreach. Testing assumes employees are guilty liars in need of interrogation. Nonetheless, the right to remain silent in criminal cases is fundamental. Isn’t self-incrimination a right for employees too? Forced polygraph testing creates an adversarial dynamic, eroding trust. It also leads down a slippery slope, potentially expanding to test for other matters like political views or personal relationships employers deem relevant.