Are you applying for a new job? If so, your prospective employer might ask you to take a polygraph exam as a pre-condition of your employment application. Is it legal for them to ask you to comply with this request?
When Is a Pre-Employment Polygraph Necessary?
If a prospective employer asks you to undergo a polygraph exam, they do so to ensure you’re the right fit for the company. The lie detector test determines if you have a criminal history presenting a security or financial threat to the organization and its staff.
Without asking you to take a polygraph, the employer has no idea if you are a genuine applicant or a criminal. You could be someone sent from the competition to commit industrial espionage; you might be thinking about planning a robbery or executing other criminal activities after your hiring.
The pre-employment polygraph is part of the HR screening process to find suitable applicants. Don’t assume that it’s only you that they polygraph. If the employer asks you to comply with their request, they have a polygraph policy used in the hiring process, and they use it to screen all applicants.
Is It Legal to Use a Pre-Employment Polygraph?
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the “Employee Polygraph Protection Act” (EPPA) into power. The purpose of the EPPA was to regulate how the private sector implements polygraph policies in the workplace. Until the release of this legislation, employers would abuse polygraph policies to keep undesirable candidates out of their organization without any valid reason.
For instance, the company’s owner might be prejudiced against people of a specific race applying for a job at their organization. They would use the polygraph to ensure they failed and have an excuse not to hire them. The EPPA did away with these unfair hiring practices, forbidding the use of polygraphs in pre-employment screening.
However, there is a loophole in the Act.
The EPPA exempted certain industries from compliance with the Act due to the nature of the business. For instance, companies involved in pharmaceutical manufacturing and distribution are exempt.
The reason for this loophole in the EPPA is to prevent people like drug addicts and organized crime members from entering companies. Can you imagine what could occur if a drug manufacturing company hired an opioid or methamphetamine addict? What if they got access to the Adderall and Oxycodone storage facility?
The same exemption exists for security companies, such as those guarding diplomats or high net-worth individuals. What if a criminal gained access to this organization and arranged an assassination. Likewise, high-value asset storage, retail, and transit companies are exempt from the EPPA. What if a criminal gained access to the company and planned a robbery?
The EPPA doesn’t apply to many public-sector organizations either. For instance, the FBI, NSA, CIA, and DOD can polygraph candidates, and they do. However, if you’re not applying for a job with any of the above-listed companies and organizations, you have protection from the employer using polygraph policies in their hiring practices.
Your Prospective Employer Notifies You of Your Polygraph Exam Date
So, what happens if you’re applying at a firm using a polygraph policy to screen candidates? You’ll have to give your permission for them to screen you first. If you commit to taking the lie detector test, the company will arrange your polygraph exam.
According to the EPPA, the prospective employer must give you at least 48 hours notice before the intended exam date. However, unless you’re dealing with a company urgently looking for people, you can expect most employers to give you around a week’s notice before your exam date.
The employer collaborates with a polygraph provider to issue the lie detector test. If employers have suitable facilities, they’ll usually arrange the exam at their offices. However, some employers might not have the space or appropriate facilities to accommodate the exam.
If that’s the case, you’ll go to a third-party venue recommended by the polygraph company. Typically, these organizations have facilities to conduct the lie detector test at their offices.
Signing Paperwork and Receiving Documents
After receiving notice of your exam, you’ll meet with the employer and the polygraph examiner. They walk you through the details of the test and how it happens from start to finish. According to the EPPA, the employer must issue you a copy of your rights relating to the EPPA and your polygraph exam.
They’ll need to give you a copy of the questions the examiner will ask you during the session. So, the good news is you’ll know what they’ll ask during the exam. The examiner may not differ from the questionnaire during the lie detector test.
You’ll need to sign a bunch of paperwork saying you consent to the polygraph test. All this is above board, and it’s to protect the employer and show they complied with the EPPA legislation surrounding the correct administration of the exam. You’ll also receive copies of everything you sign.
On the Day – Waiting for Your Exam
When the day of your exam rolls around, you’ll make your way to the venue, either at the employer’s or examiners’ premises. Make sure you arrive at least 15 to 20 minutes early. This strategy gives you time to prepare your headspace before taking the test.
The reality is, taking a polygraph exam is an unsettling experience, especially if it’s your first test. Even though you know the questions and have nothing to hide, you’ll still feel nervous. People fear the unknown, and it causes us to subconsciously activate the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The SNS is responsible for launching the “Fight-or-Flight” response (FoF).
If you have to lie in the polygraph room to cover up something, the SNS launches the FoF as an instantaneous response to what it considers a threat to your safety and survival. The FoF is what the examiner looks for during the test.
So, arriving early at the exam venue is a good idea. Use the time to do a guided breathing meditation on your phone. This practice settles your mind, making you feel less nervous.
Meeting the Polygraph Examiner
When it’s time to take the test, you enter the exam room and meet the examiner hosting your polygraph test. They’ll behave professionally and be friendly with you. One of their roles in the process is to ensure you feel comfortable before taking the test.
They don’t want you feeling anxious, which creates a possible conflict with the polygraph machines’ analysis of your physiological response to their questions. The examiner will run you through the exam parameters again and the questions they’ll ask you.
At this point, you’ll have the opportunity to ask the examiner any questions you have about the exam. As a footnote, it’s a good idea to research as much as you can about the polygraph and what happens during the exam before test day.
By learning more about the polygraph and what to expect, you reduce the fear of the unknown and the uncertainty around the lie detector test. Asking questions you fear might trip you up in the exam only serves to ensure you get accurate test results.
For example, if you have a history of drug use, you’ll have to tell the examiner when you used the drugs last. So, let’s say you used to smoke marijuana when you were a kid but haven’t touched it in a decade; you can disclose this to the examiner if you wish.
Keeping with this example, if the examiner asks you, “have you used illegal drugs in the last 18 months?” during the exam, you answer no, but your brain might think back to when you smoked as a youth. As a result, it activates the FoF response, creating a false positive, despite you no longer using the drug.
Prepping You for the Lie Detector Test
When you’re comfortable and ready to take the test, the examiner hooks you to the polygraph instruments. They’ll strap a corrugated rubber tube to your chest and abdomen. These instruments measure your respiration rate during the exam.
They’ll attack three sensors in your fingers that monitor your pulse rate, sweat gland activity, and skin electrical response to their questions. Finally, they’ll attach a blood pressure cuff to your upper arm. These instruments measure your physiological response to the questions they ask during the lie detector test.
If you lie and the SNS activates the FoF, these instruments pick up the changes in your vital signs. The instrumentation connects to a control box that plugs into the examiner’s laptop. Their PC runs a polygraph software program that interprets the electrical feedback from the control box linked to the instruments on your body.
When the test begins, the physiological feedback from your body presents on the software program as charts. The examiner has extensive training and experience monitoring them for signs of deception.
How the Exam Works – Questions & Responses
The polygraph examiner starts the test when you’re ready to go and hooked up to the instruments and software. They’ll begin by asking you some control questions to establish a baseline for your physiological response. These questions might be your name and if you understand why you’re taking the test today.
All the questions asked by the examiner require yes-or-no answers. You won’t have to expound on your questions, and it’s best if you don’t. You can expect the examiner to repeatedly ask the same five to seven questions during the exam.
They’ll analyze your answers and physiological response through their screen. If they detect possible deception, they keep asking you the question. If you continue to display deceptive behavior, they’ll ask you why you think the device is flagging your answer. They won’t outright accuse you of lying.
So, moving back to our previous example of smoking pot. Let’s assume you didn’t disclose your prior drug use before the test. In this case, they might say, “I noticed you have a reaction to the question regarding drug use. What do you think is causing this issue?”
You can then let the examiner know your previous experience with cannabis. This won’t apply to the test results. They’ll likely say, “Have you ever used illegal drugs outside of what you’ve disclosed to me now?”
You’ll reply “no” to the answer, and the polygraph software will detect your response as truthful because you won’t raise your FoF response. After you complete the test, the examiner will disconnect the instrumentation from your body, thank you for your time, and ask you to leave the exam room.
How You’ll Feel After the Polygraph Exam
You’ll likely feel relieved after finishing the exam, provided you have nothing to hide. People react differently to completing the test. As the SNS ramps down the FoF now that the threat subsides, it’s common for some people to feel an “endorphin rush.”
So, you might feel happy and lightheaded from being pleased with your performance. However, some people might still find they feel stressed. If that’s the case, go outside and get some fresh air. Take deep breaths and breathe out slower than you inhale. You’ll find this strategy calms you down in a few minutes.
When Do You Receive the Test Results?
The examiner won’t tell you if you passed or failed the exam after you finish. The reason is that they review your test data later at their office in the afternoon. If they suspect you of being deceptive, they’ll check the video footage of the session and consult with their colleagues on their opinion of if you’re acting deceptively during the test.
When the examiner is confident of their test result, they’ll write a report to your employer. This report will include any irregularities they come across in the exam review. The employer receives your test results via email, and the examiner won’t contact you.
The employer contacts you with your test results around 48 to 72 hours after taking your exam. They are not permitted to share your test results with anyone, and they don’t have copies of the test data on file, only the report the examiner sends them.
That’s it – you’re finished with the polygraph exam. Hopefully, you passed and have a new job to look forward to.