Most people feel a mix of fear, anxiety, and curiosity when they learn they have to take a polygraph exam. We’ve all seen them in the movies, and it’s portrayed as a harrowing procedure. You’re sitting in a chair with an examiner grilling you about every detail in your life while “the man” watches over you, waiting for you to make a mistake so they can throw you in prison.
However, that’s not the case. Relying on the media to make assumptions about the polygraph exam and its processes isn’t a good way to prepare for or think about the lie detector test. The reality of the situation is probably very different from what you expect.
There’s no one in the exam room except you and the examiner, no-ones watching you in an attempt to trip you up or catch you in a lie, and chances are you’re not going to prison, even if you fail the lie detector. Well, unless you’ve done something horribly wrong and illegal.
So, there’s nothing to fear about the polygraph exam. That said, there might be a few reasons why you want to avoid taking a lie detector test.
Reasons Why You Might Have to Take a Polygraph Exam
Let’s start by unpacking the reasons why you might receive a polygraph exam request. Why would you have to prepare for and endure this procedure in the first place?
Law Enforcement Polygraphs
The police, parole board, and federal agencies might request you to take a polygraph if they feel you’re lying about your involvement in a crime. For instance, if a convicted sex offender is on parole, and there are suspicions or accusations involving them in a sex crime, the parole board and law enforcement might request them to take a polygraph.
Employee & Candidate Polygraphs
Suppose you’re applying for a job at a security firm, pharmaceutical manufacturer or distributor, or a company working with high-value assets. In that case, you might have to take a pre-employment polygraph. Or the employer might ask you to take a random or scheduled lie detector test.
These tests may involve thefts in the workplace or ensuring the company isn’t hiring unsavory characters or bad actors into their organization. Typically, “The Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988” (EPPA) protects candidates and employees from undergoing lie detector tests.
However, some industries, like those just mentioned, are exempt from this law in hiring and firing practices. Employers not based in these industries can schedule their employees for polygraphs if there is a serious violation in the workplace.
For instance, the employer experiences a theft causing them economic loss, and they suspect an employee’s involvement in the crime. Employers may also institute a polygraph policy for instances of fraud at the company, accusations of sexual harassment between colleagues, or suspicion of drug abuse in the workplace.
Public Sector Polygraphs
Organizations like the FBI, CIA, DoD, and the US Attorney’s office don’t have to comply with their EPPA. These institutions, and many other public-sector organizations, are exempt from compliance with the EPPA in hiring and firing practices and on-the-job polygraph testing.
What are My Legal Rights Involved with Polygraph Testing?
If your employer requests you to take a polygraph, they must follow the guidelines of the EPPA legislation. If they step out of line and don’t comply with this law, they expose themselves to huge financial liability that could ruin their company. The US Labor Department enforces the EPPA with employers.
Employees who feel their employer violated their rights may hire an attorney to file a complaint with the US Labor Department, launching an investigation into the matter. As an employee, you have the right to refuse your employer’s request to take a polygraph exam.
The employer may not bully you into taking the lie detector test, and they can’t fire you or reprimand you in any way should you fail the exam. Doing so would be a violation of the EPPA legislation.
How The Polygraph Exam Works
The polygraph exam process for employers starts with the employer seeking advice from an attorney regarding the legality of their intent to implement a polygraph policy in the workplace, regardless of the reasons for doing so.
The employer hires an external polygraph form to conduct the lie detector tests. The examiner appointed to the employer by the polygraph firm meets with the employer and their attorney to understand the reasons for implementing the polygraph policy.
After they have a firm understanding of the situation, they start preparing the documents and procedures necessary to comply with the EPPA.
The Role of the Examiner
The examiner has a firm grasp of the EPPA, and they work with the employer to structure the exam under these guidelines. The examiner prepares the paperwork required to notify the employee of the test and the right involved in taking it.
How the Polygraph Machine Works
The polygraph machine works by detecting “deception” by analyzing the employee’s physiological responses to the questioning process. The device measures changes in heart rate, respiration, sweat gland activity, blood pressure, and skin electrical activity.
The examiner looks for the nervous system’s activation of the “fight-or-flight” response when questioning the examinee. If these reactions are outside of the baseline, it’s an indication the examinee is being deceptive with their answer and might be hiding something.
Reasons to Avoid Taking the Polygraph Exam
So, why would you want to avoid taking a polygraph test? Are there any good reasons to evoke your rights and decline the employer’s request?
Reason #1 – You Have an Anxiety Disorder
Millions of Americans have anxiety disorders, with anti-psychotic medications and anti-anxiety drugs being the most prescribed medications in the United States. Anxiety is no joke; it has crippling effects on the mind and devastating physiological effects.
People suffering from anxiety often experience cardiovascular issues, such as heart palpitations, and strong reactions to pressure situations – such as being questioned in a lie detector test. The last thing an anxious person needs is to experience a full-fledged panic attack in the exam room.
Anxiety & the Lie Detector Test
The polygraph machine operates by noting the examines physiological reactions to questions. It does so by analyzing their “Fight-or-Flight” (FoF) response during proceedings. People with anxiety disorders are constantly on the edge of the FoF reaction.
Their nervous system overproduces cortisol and adrenaline, the two primary hormones involved with the FoF and its occurrence in the body. Unfortunately, the stressors produced by the polygraph exam may inadvertently activate the FoF, even when the examinee has nothing to hide, or they aren’t lying.
Typically, a well-trained examiner can distinguish between anxiety and genuine deception. However, the risk of failing the exam is secondary to the psychological and physiological damage caused by an overreaction of the examinee to the pressure of the situation and the stressor induced by the polygraph exam.
The Effects of Medication on Polygraph Results
Most individuals suffering from anxiety disorders have medication prescribed to them by their physician to help them cope with the effects of their condition. Xanax is a common anti-anxiety drug used by these individuals to manage the nervous system and its response to environmental stressors.
Typically, the examiner can determine between medicated and unmedicated people during the test proceedings. They can look past the effects of the drug on the nervous system and accurately differentiate between deception and anxiety.
The Pressure of the Exam Environment
However, the real issue with anxiety and the lie detector test is the examinee’s reaction to the situation. If they feel overly stressed and activate the FoF during the exam, they may spin out of control of their mind and body. As a result, they begin to experience the onset of a panic attack, which can have severe physiological and mental effects on the body and mind, perhaps requiring medical intervention.
Reason #2 – You Might Fail Even If You’re Innocent
Everyone is different in their physiological response to the polygraph exam. Some people are naturally nervous, even if they don’t suffer from anxiety-related disorders. If an employee doesn’t prepare properly for the exam, they’re likely to put themselves at risk of failing the process.
The examiner does everything they can to put the mind of the examinee at ease before starting the lie detector test. However, some individuals, especially those that don’t prepare properly, may indicate deception during the exam, even when they’ve done nothing wrong.
The examiner can tell the difference between deception and nervousness in most cases. However, there are instances where the examinee might get so worked up in their nervousness that they inadvertently exhibit deceptive behavior.
Lack of Preparation
A lack of preparation is usually the culprit of failed results in examinees with nothing to hide. We all have a fear of the unknown, and the lie detector test presents an example of this. When we don’t have knowledge of something, it places the subconscious on edge, priming the FoF.
As a result, the examinee may enter the FoF if the examiner asks them a question and they have to lie about it in fear of losing their job for past or current behavior. For instance, the employee stole something when they were a teen, and the fear of their boss finding out about it might make them seem untrustworthy, causing them to lie to the examiner’s question.
Overcomplicating Your Answers
Nervous people are also prone to overcomplicate answers. If the examiner detects potential deception in the individual, they’ll ask them why the polygraph would detect this behavior. The employee will unpack their response to the question. Their state of nervousness might make them reply in a further deceptive manner rather than relieving the examiner’s suspicions of deception.
Reason #3 – You’re Guilty of an Accusation
In some cases, the employee may refuse a polygraph request because they’re responsible for the accusation made against them. They know the polygraph will uncover them as the culprit and don’t want to be caught.
In this case, the employer may not force them to take the polygraph test, allowing them to escape detection. However, suppose the rest of the staff comply. In that case, it makes the employer suspicious of the employee, and they might turn this information over to law enforcement for further investigation of the matter.
Use of Countermeasures
People guilty of an accusation and undergo a polygraph test usually do so intending to use a countermeasure in the process. A countermeasure is a technique designed to attempt to fool the polygraph machine and examiner into missing their deceptive reaction.
For instance, researching methods to beat the lie detector, using Xanax during the test, curling the toes, or biting the cheek, are all examples of countermeasures deployed by deceptive examinees.
Identification of Deceptive Behavior
Despite the individual’s best attempts to use countermeasures in the test, the examiner can usually tell they’re using these strategies. They’ll question the examinee about their suspicions, and if the examinee lies about it or admits to it, they fail the exam.
What Happens If I Fail the Polygraph Exam?
In Law Enforcement Applications
If the examinee fails a polygraph implemented by law enforcement, the detective or law enforcement authority conducting the process may attempt to get them to sign a confession. Typically, polygraph results are not admissible in court.
However, if the examinee signs a confession after failing the exam, the authorities may use the failed results as evidence in a criminal trial against them.
In Employee Scenarios
The EPPA protects employees from their employers using the results of a failed test against them. The employer may not fire or reprimand the employee for failing the lie detector test. They may not bully them in the workplace or make their job hard in an attempt to get the employee to leave the organization of their free will.
However, the employer may consult law enforcement and build a case against the employee. The employer may not disclose the polygraph test results to a future prospective employer if they call them for an employment reference.
There are several reasons why employees may refuse their employer’s request for a lie detector test. The employer must respect the employee’s request to deny their participation in a polygraph exam. Still, they do have other options available to them to further the matter if needed, provided they remain in compliance with the EPPA.