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Pre-employment Polygraph Testing

Establishing a baseline in pre-employment polygraph testing is challenging, which is why there are so few studies conducted on how accurate they are in that particular context. However, it is reasonable to assume the accuracy rates would be similar to other contexts since the tests are conducted the same way using the same physiological measures.

The studies that have been done on this issue do show that, although polygraph testing is fallible, it is the most accurate way to determine whether a subject is being honest.

Law Enforcement Agencies Using Polygraph for Employment Screening

Though private companies are prohibited by the Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 (EPPA) to use polygraph tests for pre-employment screening, the same is not true for government-run agencies such as police departments. To determine how pervasive the use of polygraph testing was in pre-employment screening in government institutions, the APA Research Center at Michigan State University surveyed police executives at 699 agencies in the U.S. The study had a 90 percent response rate and led to the following discoveries:

  • About 62 percent of agencies actively used polygraph testing in their screening program
  • The primary use of the test was to screen people for sworn in positions; however, 54 percent used them for non-sworn in jobs
  • Approximately 25 percent of people were disqualified from the job because of results from polygraph tests
  • Only 2 percent substituted polygraph tests with pre-employment background checks
  • Over 90 percent of the agencies were confident in their programs and many found them to be more useful than background checks, psychological tests, and interviews.

Polygraph tests were able to verify information obtained through normal means (e.g. application or resume) and uncover information that could not be obtained any other way such as prior drug use, dishonesty in the workplace, and involvement in unreported felonies. For example, 34 percent of agencies said the polygraph test uncovered applicants who were involved in rape crimes. Another 38 percent said they had applicants who were involved in armed robberies.

Police agencies found polygraph testing to be a simple and effective way to establish the truthfulness of background information and deter undesirable people from applying. This has lead to the hiring of better quality employees and fewer bad apples.