The truth about polygraph testing

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Although polygraph testing has been in existence for approximately 2000 years, it is a fairly new concept in South Africa, especially in disputes relating to employment relationships. Also referred to as a "lie detector' test the term is used to describe a device that simultaneously measures and records selected physiological activities and psychological data which can be used to verify a person?s truthfulness.

As an employer you may have felt at a loss when confronted with a situation in which one or more employees have been suspected of misconduct, in particular theft or fraudulent behaviour. If you've considered polygraph testing be sure of all the facts before you commit to this process.

The scenario

John owns a construction company. The company is contracted to complete a building project, and subsequently John contracts a construction foreman to manage the workers at the building site. John, a very hands-on employer, visits the site regularly to ensure a high standard of workmanship. Two weeks after construction begins John notices a discrepancy in the number of workers on site and the amount of money billed per week by the construction foreman. He confronts the foreman who adamantly denies any misconduct. A month later John notices the same inconsistency in the accounts.

John discusses his misgivings with a friend who suggests a polygraph test to prove the foreman?s guilt. Is this a viable option for an employer who suspects fraudulent behaviour in the workplace? According to labour law experts, employers like John would be better off without testing.

What is the protocol for polygraph testing?

While it is not illegal to perform a polygraph test in the workplace it is not recommended as the first course of action when there is suspected misconduct in a company, and employers should be aware of the strict regulations that must be observed if they choose to pursue this form of investigation.

Guidelines for testing

- An employee may not be compelled to undergo a polygraph test and written consent must be submitted prior to testing.

- The rights of the employee should be explained before testing commences (this includes the right to be informed that the examinations are voluntary, that no discrimination and threats will be allowed during the test and only questions discussed prior to the examination may be used.

- Employees should also be informed of their right to request that an interpreter or any person attend the examination.

When is polygraph testing admissible?

Generally, employers are permitted to use the polygraph to investigate specific incidents where there is a reasonable suspicion that the employee was involved. The polygraph may also be utilized if an employer wishes to combat dishonesty, fraudulence, lies and the deliberate falsification of documents.

It is important to note that the polygraph test can only be used to corroborate evidence and will not be accepted as conclusive evidence on its own.

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