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Senators Hear Two Sides Of Polygraph Use In Workplace

June 19, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The use of lie detectors in the workplace was put to the test Friday as opponents told a Senate panel the polygraph is ″little better than tea leaf reading or crystal ball gazing″ while proponents called it an important ″diagnostic instrument.″

″Science has not found a cure for the common cold and science has not yet developed a machine that can detect lies,″ Dr. John F. Beary III of the American Medical Association told the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.

Calling the polygraph nothing more than ″a fancy blood pressure cuff,″ Beary said ″there is no body response that’s unique to lying.″

Beary submitted an AMA report that concluded that while the polygraph can be useful in criminal investigations, lie detector testing of employees and job applicants has not been adequately studied. A wide range of false-positive and false-negative results makes such a use too unpredictable, the report said.

New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams cited a study by the federal Office of Technology Assessment which found under the narrowest type of inquiry, polygraph tests incorrectly labeled as liars an average of 19 percent of truthful people.

″Even using the conservative 19 percent estimate, of the nearly 2 million employees and applicants for employment tested last year, a minimum of 400,000 honest people were unfairly branded as liars, and have had their lives scarred,″ he said.

Criticizing the machine as ″little better than tea leaf reading or crystal ball gazing,″ Abrams called for federal legislation to end the current state- by-state patchwork of laws and regulations.

Ernest DuBester, legislative representative for the AFL-CIO, told the Senate panel that American workers have no protection from employers who use lie detector tests to ask illegal personal questions and abuse the test results.

″Lie detector testing is an unscientific and subjective procedure which violates the most fundamental principles of our Constitution: the presumption of innocence, the right of privacy and the privilege against self- incrimination,″ he said.

But William J. Scheve Jr., president of the American Polygraph Association, blamed problems on the polygraph operator, not the machine.

″It is not the polygraph itself that is potentially abusive but the few unskilled or unethical examiners who cause isolated instances of polygraph abuse,″ he said.

″We agree that the polygraph itself is only one of many diagnostic instruments,″ he said. ″What is essential to the validity and reliability of a polygraph examiniation is that the examiner be highly trained and qualified in using the polygraph technique.″

William Zierden, an executive of Circuit City Stores Inc. who testified on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argued that businesses should be allowed to use lie detectors to reduce losses from theft by detecting ″high- risk″ employees.

″Private businesses and industry also need the polygraph to guard sensitive information and to protect the health and security of their work forces and customers,″ he said.

Scheve and Zierden said they support a bill now in the House, the Polygraph Reform Act of 1987, which would establish federal guidelines to assure examiners are qualified and use accurate equipment; protect the rights of those being tested by making irrelevant personal questions illegal; and assure that no employment decisions be made solely on polygraph test results or the refusal to take a polygraph examination.

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