To some, a lie detector test violates the constitutional presumption of innocence. The person being questioned must prove he is telling the truth in a test whose results are generally inadmissible in court and often villified, even by law enforcement officials, as imprecise, inaccurate and too easy to fool.
To others, the lie detector is a valuable tool for checking honesty and aiding investigations.The debate over the polygraph recently resulted in a major victory for its opponents. Congress, after hearing horror stories of misused and misapplied polygraph tests, voted last month to ban most polygraph usage by the private sector effective Dec. 27.
"For business, it means there is just another instrument or tool that can no longer be used to investigate internal theft," said Tom Amerman, senior vice president for personnel and loss prevention at Parisian Inc., a department store.
"Most major retailers never used polygraphs for pre-employement screening, but many (including Parisian) used it for internal investigations when they had problems or thefts," he said.
The new law generally bans polygraphs during employment interviews, where the tests were used in an attempt to gauge honesty and past histories of theft and deception. Such tests were particularly important to companies hiring employees to handle large sums of money or valuable merchandise.
The law still will allow businesses to use polygraphs in some investigations. But strict protective restrictions will apply.
"The provisions put in front of you will just not make it worthwhile," Amerman said.
Among the restrictions are: Private employers cannot take actions against an employee based solely on lie detector readings; employees have to be told they do not have to take the test and no action can be taken against them if they choose not to submit to the test; and the specific wrongdoing being investigated must be reported to the police prior to the lie detector's being used.
Notifying police and placing the crime on public rec-ord requires a higher standard of proof and is something many companies shun.
"A lot handle problems internally without court action or prosecution. They just terminate the employee found to be stealing" as a result of polygraph tests, said Charles Knight, chairman of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce's law enforcement committee and corporate director of security at Harbert Corp., a major construction company. Knight said that 10 percent of the nation's profits "are being taken out of the back door through employee theft."
Polygraph tests, coupled with other evidence and investigative techniques, are an invaluable tool, he said. But the need to report the crime to police will mean companies must forgo polygraphs if they still wish to resolve the problem internally.
But the biggest irritant to business is that the law still allows all levels of government to use polygraphs. Those tests, however, are conducted by more highly trained personnel, government agencies contend.
The restrictive protections also irritate owners of private polygraph firms, the ones most often used by businesses. Although many saw the legislation coming and expanded into other types of investigation, they, too, resent the new law.
"The polygraph always was a very valuable aid in investigations. It was most valuable as an adjunct," said Albert J. Silvani, owner of Fidelity Polygraph and Investigations.
Silvani and others within the industry concede polygraph abuses have occurred by those who used it as the sole basis for hiring and dismissals and by improper readings made by ill-trained personnel, but they contend the government could have remedied much of that by setting stringent certification and licensing standards for polygraph operators.
Others say, however, the abuses of polygraphs far outweighed any potential benefits.
"We thought there were some employers who went to extremes with polygraphs," said Henry Jenkins, regional director of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store International Union, a major supporter of the protective legislation. "Some had it in their policy that if an employee failed a polygraph, they would be terminated regardless of what they were given the polygraph for."