The Privacy Invaders; Lies, Damn Lies - and Polygraphs

By Jussim, Daniel | The Nation, December 21, 1985 | Go to article overview

The Privacy Invaders; Lies, Damn Lies - and Polygraphs


Jussim, Daniel, The Nation


THE PRIVACY INVADERS

LIES, DAMN LIES--AND POLYGRAPHS

A machine that monitors blood pressure, respiration and the skin's electrical conductivity is depriving tens of thousands of law-abiding people of jobs every year. Used by employers as a means to ends both dubious and devious, the polygraph is nevertheless becoming as familiar as the time clock in more and more American workplaces. In the private sector alone, estimates of the number of polygraph tests administered annually range from several hundered thousand to 2 million. The American Polygraph Association says that three-quarters of them are used in pre-employment screening. A Presidential directive revealed last week swells the number of Federal employees who must undergo examination.

The test is most commonly used by businesses in which low-level employees handle large sums of cash daily in return for modest checks weekly, such as banks, restaurants and department stores. But all kinds of concerns tap into their workers' supposedly telltale heartbeats: meatpacking companies, hospitals and even the Yale Club have used "lie detectors' to screen prospective employees, check up on workers periodically or track down culprits in the wake of a theft or act of sabotage. Usually a security firm is hired to do the dirty work, but some businesses have in-house operations. Because employers who favor polygraph testing generally make it a condition of employment, workers find it difficult to refuse to take the test.

The machine is especially popular among employers who resent Federal and state regulations on hiring and firing; its reputation as a supposedly scientific tool gives them a license to reject or sack whomever they please. Polygraph victims can almost never prove that an employer acted illegally. We didn't fire you because you're getting old and costing us too much, a company can argue; we fired you because the polygraph says you're a thief.

Don Blews, once a manager for a department store chain in the Carolinas, provided a glimpse into polygraph practices when he testified before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee in 1978. According to Blews, his district supervisor told him that blacks "just don't work out' and ordered him to dismiss two black women workers. Blews said that when he refused, the supervisor remarked, "We'll have to show you how our polygraph test works around here.' The women were subsequently fired, after their test results indicated "a sign of a possibility of deceit.' His bosses also turned down the only two blacks whom he had ever recommended for management trainee positions, again on the basis of the polygraph test. Others who lost their jobs at Blews's store included a woman who confessed that her boyfriend used to smoke marijuana, a woman who admitted that she occasionally suffered from migraines, an employee who said her heart condition made it unsafe for her to take the test and two high-school part-timers whom the polygraph examiner refused to fit into his schedule. Blews also testified that "the polygraph companies used by my employer apparently had a quota of employees they had to fire at every round of testing in order to show that the testing was accomplishing something and that the cost . . . was justified.' Blews was fired after protesting against misuse of the test--but not before taking an examination himself and being accused of giving deceptive answers.

Besides using electronic inquests to discriminate against racial minorities, companies use them to spot deviants of all stripes. In 1977 workers at the Coors brewery struck, partly because they objected to the company's voyeurism. The polygraph agency employed by Coors asked job applicants these questions: What are your sexual preferences? How often do you change your underwear? have you ever done anything with your wife that could be considered immoral? Are you a homosexual? Are you a Communist?

Union organizers have also been targets. …

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