Saturday, December 1, 2012

Ethical Issues Might Exist Within Polygraph Examinations.

After graduation, many criminal justice majors, like myself, will apply for jobs that request them to take a polygraph examination in order to be hired. This is because many criminal justice majors apply for jobs within law enforcement and the government. Over 60 percent of the law enforcement and government-based jobs within the United States request job applicants to take a polygraph examination. I fear that these polygraph examinations could be crossing the line by invading one’s privacy. Could polygraphy be an unethical practice within the hiring process?

In order to examine the possibility of ethical issues existing within polygraphy, one must have some basic knowledge on the topic.

A polygraph machine, measures and records a subject’s blood pressure, pulse, respiration, and skin conductivity while he or she is questioned. The idea is that if a subject responds to a question with a deceiving response, the polygraph will show physiological reactions that are different from non-deceiving responses. John Larson invented the polygraph in 1921; he was a medical student at the University of California at Berkeley. It was first implemented within law enforcement by August Vollmer, the police chief of the Berkeley Police Department in California. Many members of the scientific community consider polygraphy to be pseudoscience, or a practice that is presented as scientific but: does not adhere to a valid scientific method, lacks supporting evidence or plausibility, and or cannot be reliably tested. However, in some countries, polygraphy is still being used as an interrogation tool during criminal investigations. It is also being used to supplement the interview process of prospective employees for certain public and or private sector jobs. In the United States, federal government agencies such as the FBI, the CIA, and many police departments, including the Los Angeles Police Department, are using polygraph examinations to question suspects and also to screen potential new recruits. However, in Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware and Iowa it is illegal for a non-government employer to administer a polygraph examination. Further, polygraph testimony’s admissibility in court differs between each state. Yet, no defendant or witness can be forced to undergo a polygraph test. While its use in court is controversial, polygraphy is widely used during probation, particularly on sex offenders. If you would like even more information on polygraphs, please visit the American Polygraph Association’s FAQ page HERE.

In order to gather more information on polygraph examinations I conducted an interview with polygraph expert, Tom Mauriello.

Tom Mauriello has been a professor and lab instructor at the University of Maryland’s criminology and criminal justice department for over thirty years. However, Mauriello is more than just an educator. He retired last February after thirty years of service with the United States Department of Defense (DoD). His assignments with DoD included: Special Agent; Chief of Police; Senior Polygraph Examiner; Director, Occupational Health, Environmental and Safety Services; Director, Interagency OPSEC Support Staff (IOSS); Deputy Director for Security Education, Training and Awareness; Congressional Staff Investigator for the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations; and Chief of Polygraphy for the Associate Directorate for Security and Counterintelligence. Not to mention, Mauriello is a recipient of the DoD, Exceptional Civilian Service Award, and the NCMS – Society for Industrial Security Professionals, President’s Award and Donald B. Woodbridge Award. As you can see, Mauriello is clearly more than qualified to be considered an expert on this topic: whether or not ethical issues exist within polygraph examinations.

In the following video clip, Mauriello discusses whether or not employers should request polygraph examinations.

Some ethical issues do in fact exist within polygraph examinations.

On top of the issue that Mauriello brings up that there is no one, single law that regulates polygraph examinations; polygraph exams might compel, frighten, and or manipulate test subjects. Polygraphy turns people into unwilling instruments of their own doom. Polygraphists do not need to do much to intimidate their subjects into confessing; the polygraph machine does that for them. Further, some might even consider polygraph examinations to be “fishing expeditions.” This is because, prior to administering the polygraph exam, the polygraphist might “fish” for information. He or she will do this by asking questions like, “is there anything you would like to admit or reveal prior to taking the polygraph exam?” As a result, most people are so intimidated by the polygraph machine that they confess to things prior to taking the polygraph test that the examiner would not have even thought to question them about. As you can see, there are quite a few ethical concerns surrounding polygraphy.  

With all of this knowledge, some, including myself, feel that polygraphy should be completely banned from the hiring process.

Polygraph examinations are an unethical practice that unreasonably invades people’s privacy. In my opinion they have no place within the hiring process. If you listen to the audio clip at the very bottom of this post (after the references list), of a non-expert’s opinion of polygraph examinations, you will see that I am not alone in this negative feeling towards polygraphy. I am not sure if it will ever happen, but I hope that someday polygraph examinations requested by employers, even government ones, will be made illegal on a national level.

Now that you have read my blog post, I leave you with one last question: 

Would you agree to take a polygraph examination?


- Professor Mauriello's lectures
- Pyle, C. H. (1985). Asking the Wrong Questions. Society, 22(6), 54-55.

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