[author: Marta Moakley, XpertHR Legal Editor]
A new policy in the second-largest school district in Georgia, Cobb County, is stirring some controversy within the district and generating some buzz in the HR field. Recently, Cobb amended its discipline policy to require employees to take polygraph tests in certain situations and employees who refuse to take the tests are now subject to discharge.
Although the use of polygraphs is widespread in the law enforcement community, a number of groups have criticized the overall reliability of polygraph tests in employment. The American Psychological Association has cited ways in which test results could be manipulated, such as a test subject taking drugs to stabilize any changes in blood pressure and stress levels that a polygraph would measure. In addition, courts have largely limited the use of polygraph results in lawsuits.
The federal Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 (EPPA) generally prevents private sector employers from using lie detector tests during the course of employment. Under the EPPA, an employee has a right to refuse to take a polygraph test, or to end the test at any time. However, the EPPA does not apply to state or local governments. While a number of states have further limited the use of polygraphs in employment, Georgia has not enacted any statute providing for additional employee protections. Therefore, Georgia public employers, such as school boards, are free to implement polygraphs in discipline investigations.
Cobb has used polygraph tests in workplace investigations to determine whether an employee is lying, in cases with few witnesses, or in theft investigations. The tests are also routinely used in the preemployment screening of school resource officers. Some Cobb employees have expressed concerns with the anxiety that the policy creates, as well as the potential blow to morale if it were to be widely implemented. It remains to be seen whether these concerns will have a negative impact on Cobb's recruitment, hiring and retention objectives overall.
Accordingly, even if not prohibited by law from requiring polygraph tests of employees, employers should weigh any benefits of conducting the testing with the attendant reliability concerns, possible inadmissibility of the results in the courts, and potential blow to employee morale and productivity.