Are you expected to take a polygraph exam by your employer? If you work in the private sector, your employer must provide ethical motivation for you to undertake the test. Their reasoning for implementing the polygraph policy must comply with the regulations and guidelines set by the Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 (EPPA).
If these conditions comply with the Act, you still have the opportunity to decline the employer’s request. Your boss cannot reprimand you for your decision, and they can’t threaten you with disciplinary action or discriminate against you for making the decision.
However, if you’re comfortable with taking the polygraph exam, it pays to know what to expect before you step into the exam room, what occurs during the rest, and in the wake of the exam. This post unpacks everything you need to know about what to expect on the day of your polygraph test.
What to Expect as a Candidate
As a job candidate, you don’t have to comply with an employer’s request to undertake a polygraph exam. According to the EPPA, it’s illegal for employers to require polygraphs as an employment prerequisite.
However, there are exemptions for the EPPA for public sector employers involved in the defense, national security, and law enforcement industry. These exemptions also apply to certain private sector businesses, such as those involved in high-value asset handling and transport, security, and pharmaceutical manufacturing and distribution.
As a candidate, if you refuse the take the polygraph, the employer may not use that to discriminate against you. However, they’ll find it very suspicious that you declined it. While the employer may not use your decision against you, they likely have a deep pool of candidates. If the other candidates are willing to take the test and refuse, you probably won’t land the job.
The employer won’t discriminate against you, but they’ll likely say they found a more suitable candidate. Since there’s no way to prove that one candidate is more appropriate, you don’t have any legal grounds against the prospective employer.
What to Expect as an Employee
As an employee, you have a right to refuse polygraph examinations. Your employer cannot use your refusal to dismiss or discriminate against you. In most instances, your employer is not allowed to polygraph you per the regulations and guidelines outlined by the EPPA.
However, like pre-employment screening, certain exemptions allow employers to polygraph their staff. For instance, if there is a severe economic loss at the company because of inventory theft or embezzlement, the employer can institute a polygraph policy to find the culprit.
You have the right to refuse to take the polygraph. However, if the rest of the team is willing to take the polygraph and you refuse, the employer will find that highly suspicious, especially if everyone else passes.
Before the Exam
If you’re a candidate or employee, the employer will give you 48 hours notice before they intend to polygraph you. Some employers may give you longer. It depends on their schedule. Before you undergo the lie detector test, the employer must provide you with documentation outlining the testing procedure, the types of questions you’ll have to answer, and the reasons for undergoing the exam.
They advise you of all your rights, and you’ll have to sign copies of the documents to prove you’re aware of them. The employer or examiner must also read aloud to you the information on the specified documents. The employer must tell you the location of the exam and give you ample time to prepare for the procedure.
In most cases, the employer will use an exam room at their premises for the polygraph, such as a conference room. Only the examiner and candidate or employee may be present in the exam room during the test. The employer can watch through a two-way mirror, but the examinee must be aware of this and notified of the viewing before the exam.
Most employers require their employees to turn up for work as normal on the exam test day. They are unlikely to give you the day off, as they don’t have to do this as per the EPPA. The employer and examiner may only examine five candidates or employees per day per examiner. They’ll have to hire more examiners if they need to do more.
If the employer doesn’t have suitable facilities at the workplace to host the exam, they’ll have to arrange third-party accommodations for the test. When you take the test, the employer will notify you to wait outside the exam room.
When Entering the Polygraph Exam Room
You’ll enter the exam room when it’s your turn to undergo the polygraph. You’ll notice a high-backed chair, usually facing away from the examiner’s chair, so you can’t see their face during the test. There’s a desk the examiner uses to place their laptop and the polygraph instrumentation.
Meeting the Polygraph Examiner
When you enter the exam room, the polygraph examiner will usually move to another chair facing them to start the induction process. During the induction, they’ll review the legal requirements for testing you again. You’ll have already heard everything they tell you in the 48 hours before the test when you signed the documents.
However, they’ll be a camera recording the session to get a video confirmation of your agreeing to the test and acknowledging your rights. The employer and the examiner should also notify you that they’ll be recording the session 48 hours before the test.
The polygraph examiner will introduce themselves to you, and they’ll explain the testing procedure in more detail, including the specific equipment they use for the test. They do this to reduce nervousness and place you at ease.
This is not a criminal investigation, and they do not have the right to intimidate you. In fact, it’s usually quite the opposite. The examiner’s goal is to get you feeling at ease. They’ll ask you if you have any questions, and you can ask them anything relating to the testing procedure.
Setting Up the Polygraph Instrumentation
When you feel at ease, and confident and have all your questions answered, it’s time to start setting up for the exam. The examiner will attach a blood pressure cuff to your arm to monitor changes in blood pressure during the questioning process. They also attach two corrugated rubber tubes across your chest and stomach. These tubes measure changes in your respiration rate and heart rate.
They’ll attach a meter to your finger and two pads to your palms or fingers to measure changes in sweat gland activity. Sometimes, the examiner may require you to sit on a pad that measures your movement during the test. They’ll connect all the instrumentation to their laptop.
The laptop has software analyzing the changes in your physiological responses indicated by the instrumentation on your body. It’s important to note that you’re not strapped into the chair using belts or restraints. You can get up and walk out at any stage of the exam.
Starting the Polygraph Exam
When you’re hooked up to the instrumentation and the software, it’s time to start the exam. Most polygraph exam sessions last approximately 90 minutes, from entering the exam room to leaving.
You’ll start the exam in a seated position, facing away from the examiner. They’ll tell you to focus on a point on the wall when answering the questions. The examiner will ask you questions, and you’ll respond with yes or no answers. In some cases, where the examiner needs more clarity on your answer, they’ll ask you to elaborate on your statement.
If you don’t know the answer when the examiner asks you to elaborate, it’s best to say something like, “I don’t know how to elaborate on that.” Trying to over-explain something might make you nervous, and that response might indicate deception, even though you’re just trying to elaborate on your answer.
The examiner will run through a list of questions about the topic under review. Some of the example questions used in the exam might be the following.
- Have you ever stolen from an employer?
- Have you used illegal drugs or misused prescription drugs in the last six months?
- Have you ever lied to your employer?
The questions may vary, depending on the nature of the test and the employer’s requirements for instituting the polygraph policy.
Answer yes or no, unless otherwise indicated by the examiner. The examiner will stare at their screen during the test, looking at your physiological responses to their questions. If they feel you’re being deceptive, they’ll repeat questions where they think you might be lying.
Can You Stop the Exam or Decide Against Taking It?
You have the right to stop the exam at any point. If you feel a panic attack coming on, or you think the examiner’s questions are not specific to the reason for the test, you have the right to ask to end the session.
If you end the session, wait for the examiner to acknowledge your request. They’ll remove all the instrumentation for you, note your request and usher you to the exit. Don’t remove the instrumentation yourself. Wait for the examiner to do so.
What Happens After You Finish the Polygraph Exam?
If you make it through the entire test, the examiner will thank you and tell you you’ve arrived at the end. They’ll stop the video recording, remove all the instrumentation, and thank you for your time. The examiner will not give you an answer on whether you passed the polygraph or not.
After you finish the exam, your employer will usually give you a break to gather yourself and your thoughts before returning to work. They do not have to give you the rest of the day off. While the exam is over for you, the examiner’s job is far from over.
After completing their daily polygraph exams, they return to their office. They’ll review the video footage of your exam and note your body language during the test, especially in questions where your answers may indicate deception.
After completing their analysis, they’ll make a decision on the results. The result is either deception detected or no deception detected. They do not have to provide motivation for their conclusion. Only the employer and relevant persons in the organization, such as managers, receive the polygraph results.
Under no circumstances may the examiner or employer reveal the test results to anyone other than you or nominated persons in the organization. So, if you fail, the employer may not divulge this result to another prospective employer. Typically, you’ll receive the results of your polygraph exam 24 to 72 hours after taking the test.
How to Prepare for the Day of Your Polygraph Test
The Day Before the Exam
Read up on polygraphs and the process of the polygraph exam.
Stick to Your Routine
Don’t do anything out of the ordinary. Eat breakfast and have your morning cup of coffee.
Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Try to get some sleep, but avoid using drugs like Ambien if you don’t normally take them.
The Morning of the Exam
Don’t Overdo the Stimulants
Don’t overdo the coffee. If you have trouble sleeping, avoid compensating with more stimulants, which affect heart rate and breathing.
Do a meditation before the exam to clear your mind and feel calm. Look up a guided meditation on YouTube; it’s free.
Activate the parasympathetic nervous system and calm yourself before entering the exam room. Breathe in using a five count, and exhale to an eight count.
In Closing – Expectations Can Work Against You
It’s best to calm your mind and not have expectations of what will happen during the exam. Follow the tips for preparing for the test outlined above, and go into the exam room prepared but not nervous. If you overdo your expectations, such as what questions the examiner will ask, it might work against you, causing a failed result. Stay calm and collected, and remember that you have the right to end the session whenever you want.