New survey shows polygraph testing divides SA's employers
A new survey conducted by South Africa’s top executive search firm, Jack Hammer Executive Headhunters, shows that the issue of polygraph or lie detector testing is splitting the country’s blue-chip employers.
While the banking sector generally and firmly rejected the veracity of polygraph tests, employees within the insurance, FMCG and retail industries could find themselves wired up and their bodily responses scrutinised for evidence of dishonesty. And, says Debbie Goodman-Bhyat of Jack Hammer, they need to be aware that there is currently no legislation covering polygraph testing, which could see some employees on the back foot in a crisis.
Those in the “pro-polygraph” camp point out that lie detector tests are another weapon in a company’s arsenal if an employee is accused of a serious offence. One respondent from the retail sector indicated that not only would they subject employees to polygraph tests but also to simultaneous “lifestyle audits” in the case of financial mismanagement charges.
Others indicated that such tests are a good way of indicating whether employees share the company’s values and whether they have integrity, especially when handling substantial amounts of money. The banking sector came down sharply against such tests, with respondents indicating that they rely on stringent recruitment procedures to ensure that only individuals with integrity are hired. Some felt that the tests were “not an exact science” and “irrelevant to a white-collar environment”, while stating a preference for “hard evidence”.
“The old saying, ‘Prevention is better than cure’, is true,” Goodman-Bhyat says. “Once the crime – usually fraud or theft – has been committed, you cannot go back and ‘undo’ it. A polygraph test may help you uncover the guilty party in a crisis but the possible damage to your corporate reputation and staff morale has already been incurred.
It is surely better to hire exemplary employees and minimise the chances of crime than to ‘lock the stable door after the horse has bolted’, so to speak.” There is currently no legislation covering lie detector tests in South Africa, and both the CCMA and courts of law will only consider polygraph evidence in conjunction with other evidence. “This means that no employee can be compelled to take a polygraph test and that failing one is not an automatic indication of guilt.
Employees who find themselves in a situation where they may have to take a test must give their consent in writing,” says Goodman-Bhyat. According to polygraphic best practices, HR managers and employees should abide by certain guidelines, for the protection of all parties. “HR managers have to inform the individual that the examination is voluntary, and that only issues discussed prior to the test will be examined – i.e. an examiner investigating a fraud charge can’t spring a ‘gotcha’ or ‘surprise’ question about an unrelated suspected crime on the employee.
In addition, employees have the right to an interpreter and the right to have another party present, provided that person does not interfere with the investigation”. Even with all these parameters in place, polygraph evidence alone is not a basis for finding guilt when the case is put before the CCMA. “An in-depth recruitment process should help weed out untrustworthy individuals who are likely to go against the prevailing corporate culture and thus commit acts such as theft, fraud or others that have a negative impact on the company’s and their own job performance, such as habitual dishonesty or narcotics abuse.
“Ideally, I would prefer to see more sectors screening potential employees more stringently than hoping for the best and having to do damage control and resorting to measures such as lie detector tests in a crisis,” notes Goodman-Bhyat.