When a job interview turns into an interrogation

In the United States, polygraph tests in the workplace have been outlawed for 28 years. Why are Israeli employers still using them?

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative photo of interrogation with the help of lie detector on June 26, 2011 in Jerusalem.
(Photo by Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Illustrative photo of interrogation with the help of lie detector on June 26, 2011 in Jerusalem. (Photo by Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

When Jeff P., a recent immigrant to Israel from the United States, was looking for a job a few months ago, he was surprised when a potential employer asked him to take a polygraph test.

“It was a Forex company. I had interviewed with the company several times and even had a starting date. But then they said, ‘There’s this formality, you have to take a lie detector test.’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure, I have nothing to hide.’”

Jeff arrived at an office in downtown Tel Aviv run by a mother-and-daughter team. The daughter asked him some questions and then escorted him into the mother’s office, where he had to sit facing a wall while the testers observed him in profile.

The testers proceeded to ask him questions like, ‘Have you ever stolen anything? Have you used certain drugs? Are you trying to join the company to steal information? Do you have an agenda?’”

Jeff said all the questions registered with him as reasonable, and he assumed he had passed. But a few days he later got a call from the company informing him that they wouldn’t be needing his services.

“The woman on the phone insisted it had nothing to do with the test. But I felt strongly that it did. It was a little odd in that you’re being judged by people using instruments that aren’t capable of determining whether someone is telling the truth. It’s kind of a sham.”

In the United States and some other Western countries, the use of polygraph exams in employment situations is outlawed, but in Israel the practice is common for employers, even as it is outlawed as evidence in criminal court. Critics say polygraph tests are an invasion of privacy, not to mention there is no proof they work.

Three kinds of test

Tuvya Amsel, chairman of the Israeli Polygraph Examiners Association, says that Israel is more sensitive to security issues, and this may explain the continued use of polygraph tests by employers.

“We’re more suspicious in this country,” he said.

Amsel, who also runs a private polygraph practice, says his customers include telecommunication companies, cable television companies, financial institutions, banks, credit card companies, the diamond and gold industries, as well as high-tech companies that are nervous about industrial espionage.

Amsel is an avuncular man with a Hungarian accent who quotes Talmud and has taught polygraph techniques to the Shin Bet security service, the Israeli police and the FBI. He says people who come for the test often open up to him, like a therapist.

“We have our limits: we don’t ask people about their personal lives, but sometimes people tell us everything. They say, ‘I know I won’t get the job, but I feel so comfortable talking with you.’”

Amsel says his company, which only works with the private sector, conducts three types of tests. “There is a specific-issue test. If there is an issue in the workplace like sexual harassment, missing money, or embezzlement, we examine people to see if they are truthful.”

Second, there is the pre-employment screening test, in which Amsel will try to determine whether a candidate has a criminal background, was ever fired for dishonesty, or has a drug habit.

Tuvya Amsel (LinkedIn)
Tuvya Amsel (LinkedIn)

“We don’t disqualify people for using drugs, that is not our concern. The question is how much do they use–does it cost a lot of money? We focus on how much you spend — if someone is a social user we don’t care.”

The third type of test, says Amsel, is the periodic test, where employees are asked from time to time whether they stole anything or leaked information. The purpose of this test, says Amsel, is to deter people.

“Ninety to 95 percent of people come to work to work, not to steal. So if you have something to deter them from doing stupid things, they won’t do it.”

Amsel says that the specific-issue polygraph test has 94 percent accuracy while the pre-employment screening test is about 80 percent accurate.

But doesn’t polygraph screening in the workplace destroy the atmosphere of trust? Amsel insists the opposite is true.

“A few years ago I was asked by a large supermarket chain in Brazil to implement an integrity project, not using a polygraph machine, but only paper and pencil tests with interviews. The CEO was in favor of the project but the head of human resources was opposed, saying it would make the employees feel as though they aren’t trusted.”

To register her protest, the human resources manager never showed up for meetings with Amsel. But after a year and a half, recalls Amsel, she showed up and said she had been converted.

“She said that at first, when employees are asked for an interview, they were resentful. They said ‘I’ve been working here 30 years and you don’t trust me?’ But then the employee thinks, this isn’t personally against me, so I can live with it. When they finally pass the test, employees think, ‘Not only do I say I’m honest but management has a certificate that I am honest.’”

The human resources manager told Amsel that after a year and a half the company had been transformed.

“Everyone felt that they had a cleaner work environment,” Amsel recalls. “It’s like when you fly in an airplane and you go to the toilet and you see it is clean and shining, you will leave it this way. If you walk into a dirty toilet you will not clean it. It’s the broken windows theory.”

From lie-detector debunker to Jewish sociologist

Leonard Saxe, known to Times of Israel readers as a sociologist of American Jewry, spent an earlier part of his career, during the 1980s and 1990s, as a debunker of polygraph tests. Saxe says he put himself out of work when in 1988 the United States passed the Employee Polygraph Protection Act, prohibiting the use of polygraph tests in American workplaces with the exception of security firms, pharmaceutical manufacturers and government agencies. In 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court (in United States v. Scheffer) ruled that the polygraph was inadmissible as evidence in court. In Israel, too, the results of a polygraph test are inadmissible in criminal court but in civil court they are fair game if the person being tested agrees to it in advance.

Prof. Leonard Saxe (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)
Prof. Leonard Saxe (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)

Saxe says there is no proof that a polygraph is any better than chance at predicting whether a person is lying. Specifically, for employment screening tests, there is no way of even testing the efficacy of polygraph tests because researchers don’t know what is true and what’s not true.

“How could you possibly know what it is that someone is trying to hide?”

The polygraph test has a colorful history. It was invented by William Moulton Marston, a 20th century psychologist “who was obsessed with sex, lived with two women, his mistress and wife, and went on to author the Wonder Woman comic books,” says Saxe. Wonder Woman, readers may recall, had a golden lasso that compelled anyone in it to tell the truth.

“Marston had this idea that it takes energy or brain activity to lie. So it must be detectable. But people are nervous and anxious for lots of reasons. It could be the interaction between the examiner and the person, or how much coffee the person had that day.”

Saxe points to a 1986 episode of the television newsmagazine “60 Minutes” in which three different polygraph testers finger three different employees for purportedly stealing equipment.

Former Likud Knesset member and minister Michael Eitan described to The Times of Israel how in 1991 he chaired a parliamentary investigation committee in the Knesset on the validity of polygraph testing.

Israel’s polygraph industry is unregulated to this day

“It included Amnon Rubinstein and Yitzhak Levi. There was concern about the high number of false positives and false negatives. One of our recommendations was to require polygraph testers to be licensed, because anyone could call themselves a polygraph expert without any oversight.”

Eitan says the committee’s recommendations were defeated in a tie vote and Israel’s polygraph industry remains unregulated to this day.

Who does it hurt?

The Times of Israel posted a question on Facebook looking for people who had taken a polygraph test for work. A few former employees of tech companies said they had done so but that it was “no big deal” or “a lot less sinister and more fun than I expected.”

A Google news search reveals that polygraph testing is alive and well in the Israeli workplace. Israel’s new chief of police wants all employees to take polygraph tests, and supermarket mogul Rami Levy allegedly asked cashiers to sign nondisclosure agreements and take polygraphs.

Michael Eitan (photo credit: Uri Lenz/ Flash90)
Michael Eitan (Uri Lenz/ Flash90)

For many Israelis polygraph testing is viewed as a legal but draconian demand on the part of employers.

“Believe it or not I took one for working in a gas station while I was in ulpan.” one Facebook respondent wrote. “The test itself was fine, but I was like, what is this — the former Soviet Union?”

“I skipped a well-paying job because they said everything is ‘perfect’ but we just want you to take a lie detector test, which was standard as part of their interview process,” wrote another. “It felt as if it says a lot about the company right out of the beginning, if they can’t trust my character, my references and the interviews we had, then I don’t think they’re the right employer.”

Saxe says the problem with employers using polygraphs is that “you make your business less competitive and less efficient, and you have less dedicated employees. In high-tech and other places you want just the opposite. Also to the extent that employees figure out it’s just a game and they learn how to pass the test, you may actually be missing people.”

According to former Knesset member Eitan, the problem with polygraph testing is that it’s unregulated.

“The mafia can open a polygraph office if they want. You have a divorce case, alimony, and someone tells you, ‘If you go to that office you’ll get a polygraph test that is more to your liking.’ There’s a lot of money to be made. And there’s no oversight, it’s like a person selling flowers in the market.”

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