Can an employer require me to take a polygraph test before hiring?

Filling out an application, giving reliable references, and interviewing with hiring personnel are all standard components of a job search. But what if your potential employer also asked you to take a polygraph test? Whether or not you will have to take a lie detector test depends on federal laws and your state's regulations.

How a Polygraph Works

A polygraph machine, also referred to as a lie detector test, measures and records the body’s involuntary responses to a series of questions administered by an examiner. The machine measures physiological data like pulse, respiration, blood pressure, and skin conductivity. It is believed that dishonest answers can be differentiated from honest ones by changes in the examinee’s physiological responses.

Employee Polygraph Protection Act (EPPA)

In the past, polygraph tests were frequently administered to criminal suspects and job applicants. However, with only a modest amount of scientific evidence to support the reliability of polygraph tests, their use has declined in recent decades. The Employee Polygraph Protection Act (EPPA) was enacted in 1988 and established guidelines for polygraph testing in the private sector. The law does not cover public agencies or local, state, or federal government agencies. 

The EPPA prohibits most private employers from requiring job applicants and current employees to take lie detector tests. There are a few exceptions in the EPPA for commercial businesses. For example, if the business is under contract with the federal government involving specified activities (e.g. counterintelligence work) or if the business has a primary purpose of providing armored car personnel or other security personnel in facilities which have a significant impact on the health or safety of any state (e.g. public water works).

Another exception to the EPPA is if the business manufactures or distributes controlled substances. Additionally, if an employer suspects a current worker of being involved in theft or embezzlement, it may require the worker to submit to a polygraph test if certain requirements are met. If you are obligated to submit to a test, the examiner must be licensed and bonded, or have professional liability coverage.

Employer Responsibilities and the EPPA

For the most part, aside from these limited exceptions, a private employer may not require a job applicant or current employee to take a polygraph test. The employer may not use or inquire about the results of a polygraph test and it cannot discipline or discharge an employee if he/she refuses to take the test. Every employer subject to the EPPA must post a notice explaining the Act on its premises. The notice must be posted in a conspicuous place where it can be easily observed by employees and job applicants. Finally, many states ban polygraph testing altogether so it’s important to check with your state’s regulations for more information.

Getting Help

If you think your employer is in violation of the EPPA, consider contacting an employment and labor law attorney today. An employment attorney can explain the EPPA and any local regulations and help you file a claim against your employer, if necessary.