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Question 114: May a manager use lie detector tests to deal with employee fraud?

I own and manage a company whose main offices are outside the United States and whose representatives, working out of various cities, are on the road most of the time. In recent years, despite getting an outside accounting firm’s advice and tightening up my whole operation as much as possible, the company has experienced increasing losses due to employee dishonesty. At a meeting last week with my counterparts from several other companies, I learned that my problem is far from unique. Apparently, employee dishonesty has become a major cost of doing business and a leading cause of rapidly increasing prices.

Virtually all of my counterparts agree that something must be done. The only apparently cost-effective tactic anyone proposed, however, is the use of polygraph testing (so-called lie detector tests). I find the idea repugnant and I know that my employees, most of whom are honest, will find it equally so. In the first place, polygraphs do not detect lies, but only indicate signs of stress that, at best, provide ground for suspicion that a person is lying. More important, in my view, resorting to polygraph testing would be an act of desperation, admitting defeat in my effort to build my business on mutual respect, team spirit, and honest dealing. But there seems to be no alternative. The business has been losing money and will fail in the next year or two unless I can regain profitability, and a half-dozen incidents within the past eighteen months have made it clear to me that abuses by employees constitute a major component of my financial problem.

If I institute polygraph tests, testing cannot be voluntary, for otherwise it would be ineffective. My employees will have to be given the choice between submitting to regular tests and resigning. Presented with that option myself, I would feel that my integrity was being questioned, my privacy invaded, and my will coerced. But what alternative is there if the business is not to go down the drain, leaving not only me but my honest employees high and dry?


This question calls for the derivation of norms regarding polygraph testing. Any legal restrictions on it should be presumed just and almost certainly should be obeyed. The employer-employee relationship should be real community, based on mutual understanding and commitments faithfully fulfilled in genuine cooperation. Difficulties troubling the relationship should be dealt with by dialogue, mutual correction, self-improvement, and reconciliation. Polygraph testing is hardly likely to build up community and may further impair it. So, before resorting to such testing, the questioner should make a serious attempt to enlist employee cooperation in solving the problem. Moreover, if polygraph testing is to be used, the employees’ cooperation should be sought in working out a plan to minimize its detrimental effects on genuine community, and that plan should exclude treating the results of such testing as evidence of guilt.

The reply could be along the following lines:

In the United States, the law severely restricts the use of polygraph testing in dealing with problems like yours.321 I assume you have looked into relevant law where you operate and found it to be permissive or less restrictive. If not, find out what the law requires before proceeding; you should presume its requirements just and, almost certainly, should comply with them.

I agree that instituting polygraph testing is repugnant and would be an act of desperation in the face of the breakdown of the good interpersonal relationships you had hoped to build and enjoy with your employees. Real community requires cooperation, involving faithful fulfillment of commitments, and based on mutual understanding and shared purposes. Failures and conflicts are inevitable, of course, but partners in authentic community handle these by dialogue, mutual correction, self-improvement, and reconciliation. Using a technical device such as the polygraph to enforce honesty is a miserable way of salvaging a remnant of community—the outward behavior that should be involved in true cooperation. It makes no direct contribution to healing and building up community and, indeed, may even further damage it.

While profitability is indispensable for your business, genuine community also is necessary and, humanly speaking, far more valuable; it requires the mutual respect, team spirit, and honest dealing on which you have sought to build your business. Without these, your relationships with your employees and their relationships with one another will be no more than crass pursuit of self-interest and mutual exploitation, and such bad relationships are likely to lead to the failure of any business. Therefore, for the sake of a real, long-term solution to your problem as well as for the intrinsic human value of genuine community, make every effort to proceed in a way that builds up community or, at least, avoids further damaging it.

I suggest that, before instituting polygraph tests, you give community another chance. Communicate with your employees and enlist their cooperation in solving the problem so that you can avoid resorting to that repugnant technique. If feasible, the best way would be by calling them together for face-to-face discussion, since that would make for more effective communication, not only between you and them but among themselves.

You might begin by pointing out the company’s financial peril and explaining the role of employee dishonesty in it. Make it clear that the company cannot survive and everyone will be out of work unless the abuse is corrected, so that all understand that those behaving irresponsibly are injuring each and every honest participant in the business. Next, tell them you have considered initiating polygraph examinations, and how repugnant you find the prospect and why. Propose, as far better, an approach that will rely upon, build up, and restore genuine community.

You should explain that each member of the company must do his or her part for such an approach to work. Those who have behaved wrongly must stop and, insofar as they can, repay what they have taken or otherwise make up for the damage they have done. If you have set a bad example by using the company’s resources for personal amenities, you should acknowledge the error of your ways and provide the model for amendment. Even those who have not contributed in any serious way to creating the problem must help solve it. They must resist temptations to join in the wrongdoing; if they know someone who has succumbed, they must demand that he or she reform and make restitution. They also must keep an eye out for misbehavior, move at once to correct it, and report to higher management anyone who persists despite their efforts. Make it clear that anyone whose future misbehavior is established will be dealt with severely, and that, where the amount involved exceeds a certain specified sum, this will include both dismissal and, whenever possible, criminal prosecution and a legally enforced demand for full restitution.

In concluding, ask your employees to discuss what you have said among themselves and tell you what they think, and especially to give you any constructive ideas they might have for dealing with the problem. Finally, listen to their reactions and suggestions, think them over carefully, and act as quickly and openly as possible on any that seem likely to help.

Why do I suggest specifying a sum that will trigger dismissal and legal proceedings? Not because minor theft is morally acceptable; it is not. Rather because most employees at least occasionally cheat their employers in some small, tolerable ways, so that not all misbehavior can or should be treated as equally significant. Those guilty of gross misconduct do not recognize this distinction and regularly rationalize what they do by saying: “Everyone does it.” The embezzler of a million dollars, for example, points a finger at a secretary who used the office postage meter to mail an urgent personal letter. You need to draw a clear line to mark the boundary of your readiness to tolerate minor misbehavior.

If this approach does not sufficiently reduce the problem, I believe you nevertheless can maintain the communitarian spirit behind it even if you decide you must institute polygraph examinations. In taking that step, you could communicate again with your employees, preferably by calling them together, explain your decision and your reasons, and invite their cooperation in working out a procedure that will minimize detrimental effects on your relationship with them.

Of course, you must be prepared to offer a tentative plan. I think it should be along the following lines. First, everyone, including you, should be expected to take the same examination on a regular basis, so that being tested will not call anyone’s integrity into question. Second, only questions about outward behavior that harms the company’s profitability should be asked, so that everyone’s privacy will be respected and there will be no prying into anyone’s thoughts, feelings, and intimate affairs. Third, no questions will be asked about petty amounts, so that nobody will be expected to be perfect, and attention will be focused exclusively on gross and deliberate misconduct damaging to the company and unfair to everyone involved in it. Fourth, signs of lying detected by a polygraph test will not be used as a ground for dismissal or otherwise treated as evidence of guilt, but will serve only as grounds for suspicion warranting investigation and close oversight. No action will be taken against any employee except on the basis of hard evidence. Fifth, tests should be administered by a well-trained and experienced examiner.322

Stating and adhering to a set of conditions along these lines will minimize the negative impact of polygraph tests on genuine community. That, along with inviting everyone’s cooperation, will make it possible for you to proceed with this technical device, if it proves unavoidable, without being unfair to anyone. In this way, you can hope to overcome the problem, restore profitability, and at least preserve what remains of the genuine community you and your honest employees desire.

321. On the political and legislative history of the U.S. Employee Privacy Protection Act (1988) see Priscilla M. Regan, Legislating Privacy: Technology, Social Values, and Public Policy (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 144–67; the law prohibits most private employers from using polygraph testing except in specific investigations of loss or injury to the business (n. 99, 288–89).

322. This condition is necessary for polygraph validity and reliability; see Stan Abrams, The Complete Polygraph Handbook (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1989), 179–201.