Policing polygraphs

IF drug testing is controversial in the workplace, the use of lie detectors, or polygraphs, stirs even more passionate concerns among workers, unions, and civil rights devotees. There are an estimated 3 million polygraph tests administered in the United States yearly - many of them to workers. The American Polygraph Association estimates that 25 percent of all businesses and 60 percent of all retail establishments use the tests.

In more than 20 states, concerns about accuracy, legal liability of employers, and invasion of workers' privacy have prodded tight restrictions on how lie detectors are used. And legislation expected to be reintroduced in the next Congress - the Hatch-Kennedy Polygraph Protection Act - would ban the use of polygraphs in most of the private sector.

A recent American Bar Association forum here on the use of lie detectors highlighted the pros and cons of lie detectors. Backers said that these tests help prevent companies from hiring dishonest employees and discourage employees from stealing. Opponents warned of misuse, possible misinterpretation of results, and invasion of privacy, including intrusion into aspects of workers' lives that are not job-related.

Scott Kneese, a Houston lawyer who advises management, stresses ``reliability'' - some estimate up to 95 percent. But he says the polygraph should only be used as one tool in assessing a worker's veracity. ``We should not brand employees as thieves, drug-takers, and child molesters as a result of polygraphs,'' he says.

Lee M. Burkey, a Chicago lawyer who serves unions, insists that ``thousands of people in America are being denied employment or forced out of jobs on the basis of faulty information.

``In our enthusiasm for order in this society, let us not forget that we have a great duty to the innocent,'' he says.

Among recommendations for use of polygraphs in the workplace:

1.Make it voluntary, even allowing employees who take the test to stop it at any time.

2.Give workers questions in advance and only allow questions directly relating to the job.

3.Allow employees the right to see results and the opportunity to challenge them.

4.Forbid intimidation by examiners.

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