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What is the Employee Polygraph Protection Act?

By Marlene Garcia
Updated May 16, 2024
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The employee polygraph protection act is a United States federal law enacted in 1988 to guard against unwarranted lie detector tests for prospective or current employees of a private business. Strict standards are set in the legislation that outline when polygraph examinations may be conducted and under what circumstances. The employee polygraph protection act provides exceptions to the law for private companies that perform certain contract work for the government and for companies that make or distribute controlled substances.

Under the employee polygraph protection act, private companies may not require a job applicant to undergo a lie detector test as a condition of employment with the company. Exceptions exist for firms that provide security services to a government agency and contract employees who work in a position that protects public health and safety, such as power plant workers. Companies that manufacture or sell drugs that are considered controlled substances in the U.S. may be also asked to take a polygraph examination as a pre-employment screening tool.

Once an employee is hired at a private business, the law permits the employer to ask for a lie detector test if the employee is suspected of embezzlement or other theft. Precise steps must be followed in this type of situation, however. An employer must explain in writing the basis for the investigation, the amount of the loss and why the employee is a suspect in the crime.

The employee is entitled to notification of the reason for the polygraph and where it will be conducted at least 48 hours in advance of the test. The actual testing generally takes at least 90 minutes to be considered reliable. During every step of the process, the employee’s rights should be explained, and he or she should receive copies of all documents pertaining to the polygraph examination and the employer’s reasons for it.

A lie detector test measures a person’s heart rate, breathing and perspiration output. The examiner first uses a series of practice questions designed to cause stress or a neutral reaction to create a baseline measurement of how the testing subject responds to a lie or the truth. Proponents of lie detector tests believe a person is under stress when he or she lies, and the stress can be measured by polygraph instruments. Others believe some people can fool the test because they lack any sense of morality.

Provisions in the employee polygraph protection act give job applicants and current employees certain rights if any part of the law is violated. For instance, they may file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor, the agency charged with enforcing the statute and fining offenders. An employee also may file a lawsuit against a company if violations can be proven. He or she may ask to be reinstated as an employee and request payment of lost wages if he or she was fired as a result of a violation of the employee polygraph protection act.

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