Can Your Employer Force You To Take A Polygraph? Can You Be Fired For Refusing Or Failing It?

When something important goes missing at work—whether it's money, merchandise, or intellectual property—can your employer demand that you take a lie detector test? If you fail it, can you be fired? These are the facts you should know in order to protect yourself from what essentially is little better than junk science.

Polygraphs simply aren't reliable.

While proponents of the test say that they're about 90% accurate, some rather reliable sources disagree. Critics point out that the test relies not only on a person's physiological response to stress but the assumption that everyone physically reacts essentially the same way to lying. It's been proven several times over, however, that polygraphs can be beaten by skillful liars—or even ordinary people that have trained themselves to be calm when faced with nerve-wracking questions.

The National Academy has said the scientific evidence of the accuracy of polygraph test for employee screening is extremely limited and doesn't support the idea. The American Psychological Association has said that while they may be slightly better than flipping a quarter to determine the truth, they have significant error rates with a lot of false positives and false negatives.

Government employees or contractors have little protection against forced testing.

Government employees or contractors who have to obtain (or keep) a security clearance in order to get (or keep) a job are stuck in a difficult position if they're asked to take a polygraph. if this applies to you, you can technically decline to take the exam—but don't expect to pass the security clearance check.

Most of the time, you'll be given more than one chance to pass the exam, but you may want to consult with an attorney who deals in employment law and security clearance matters after the first failed test. He or she may be able to help you through the process.

Employees of private companies have more protection.

The Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 gives employees of private firms more legal protection against these devices:

  • There has to be an identifiable economic loss to the company that's not explainable through ordinary business operations.
  • There has to be reasonable suspicion that you are somehow involved in the loss.
  • Your employer must notify you in writing that he or she wants you to take the polygraph test.
  • The written notice has to explain that the test is voluntary.
  • The notice must also explain that you cannot be fired or disciplined for refusing to take the test.
  • You have to be given a minimum of 48 hours notice before the test to consider your choices.
  • You can also stop the test at any time.

Even if you take the test and fail it, you still can't be fired unless your employer has additional supporting evidence to back up his or her belief that you were involved in their losses. 

Consult an attorney if you believe a polygraph led to your dismissal or another adverse action at work.

You need to consult an employment attorney if you believe that you were terminated either because of your refusal to submit to a polygraph exam or because you failed one. Your attorney can help you get an injunction that forces your employer to give you back your job, promote you (if you were denied one over the polygraph), and compensate you for your lost wages and the damage to your reputation.