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I've never personally had to take a polygraph examination before, but I have had a psychological evaluation before (which isn't all that bad at all). The psychological was just filling out a survey, you come back in another day, and the doctor asks you questions about the answers you provided. It was very simple and not mind-wrecking at all.

Can the same be said for a polygraph exam? Is the process similar in that you answer questions beforehand and then they ask questions about it, or do they use things you've put on your application? Really the main point is: will it always be something you've directly told them previously, or will they also ask questions about things they've found in your background investigation and other checks that you may not know about?

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Places still do that? Just remember polygraphs are about one half-step away from pseudoscience...I wouldn't consider working for a place that used polygraph tests simply because considering them valid proves incompetence. –  Rarity Apr 30 '12 at 20:17
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@Rarity: Most government jobs use polygraph exams. I don't think I've ever seen one that didn't have it listed as a step in the process. –  animuson Apr 30 '12 at 20:19
    
maybe they do in the US. I think legally they can't use them in the UK. –  Rory Alsop May 1 '12 at 14:26
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The main purpose of the polygraph is not to "detect lies" since scientifically it is not really capable of doing that. The real purpose is to persuade you to admit to information that would disqualify you from the job, because you think the machine can detect a "lie". This way they do not have to go through the trouble of tracking down the information independently... the candidate himself admits to it. –  JoelFan May 1 '12 at 21:50
    
+1 on the pseudoscience. Polygraphs do not detect lies. Instead they are used to entice people into admitting things they may not otherwise say. Google is your friend on this one, but one technique I saw in a documentary (can't give a reference I'm afraid) is where a polygraph is run, the interviewee is left to sit alone for 20 or 30 minutes and then the interviewer returns and asks "So, we have just reviewed your results - are you sure there isn't anything you'd like to tell us?" Of course, there is nothing in the results, and this is just another technique to extract information. –  Laconic Droid Nov 18 at 19:57

2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

The content of polygraph examinations can and will vary depending on the purpose of the examination, but they are usually limited to simple yes or no questions.

There are normally some initial baseline questions ("Is your name John Doe?", "Do you reside at 1313 Fake Street?", etc.) and noise/control questions, followed by the actual "Relevant Questions" they want to verify (stuff like "Have you ever sold illicit drugs?", "Have you ever advocated the violent overthrow of the United States Government?", etc.). The baseline questions are sometimes also repeated during and after the exam.


If you are particularly concerned about taking a polygraph (for reasons other than the fact that you intend to lie your way though it), clearancejobs.com has a nice page on taking the polygraph exam - their advice basically boils down to three things:

  1. Don't disrupt your routine. It's a day just like any other, treat it that way.
  2. Relax and don't get yourself stressed out about taking an OMG PoLyGrApH!.
    It's just a machine and a person asking you questions.
  3. Be truthful in your responses.
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Some of the tips on their website also include "don’t ask anyone who has taken a polygraph what theirs was like", "don’t spend time soul searching your life thinking of things that may be asked during the test", and "don’t anticipate what questions will be asked". –  Thomas Owens Apr 30 '12 at 20:15
    
@ThomasOwens which are great tips that everyone ignores, to the point where I don't even repeat them anymore. (Hell I was never polygraphed for any of my .gov-related jobs and I still asked people about their experiences. I'm a bad person. Don't be like me!) –  voretaq7 Apr 30 '12 at 20:31
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The only problem I ever had was in the army when they wanted to know about the time i spent in a Turkish prison... I got all doe eyed and asked how they knew about that... the guys laughed and signed the paper I never even had to take the polygraph! –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame May 1 '12 at 12:31
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I would make a change to #3... instead of "be truthful", "do not lie". You may want to refuse to respond to some questions even if it may mean you cannot be hired. This especially applies to illegal activity. If you have done something illegal and admit to it, then some organizations (especially government) WILL refer your statement to a law enforcement agency. Keep in mind that there are plenty of jobs available that do not require a polygraph. Is just the chance of getting this one job worth possible serious legal problems? –  JoelFan May 1 '12 at 21:47

It depends on the purpose of the polygraph. They will be looking for certain types of information. You covered the major possibilities:

  • confirming info on your application
  • confirming info on a background investigation

They will also be looking at items they never asked you about. They may be looking for anything you are trying to hide.

Often for the work related poly they will go over the questions before the instruments are on. During the test they only want yes or no answers. They go over the questions early so that you don't start a debate about the meaning of the word "is" during the middle of the exam.

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+1 for pointing out that sometimes they ask about things that they didn't cover on previous paperwork. If they can get you to voluntarily own up to a major issue in the polygraph they can avoid the rest of the process (full background check). –  voretaq7 Apr 30 '12 at 20:26
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@voretaq7 - The question still has to be legal. There are some questions which if asked would be illegal in the united states. –  Ramhound May 1 '12 at 16:30
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@Ramhound absolutely right, and anyone seeking employment in the US (or interviewing people for employment) should take a few minutes to familiarize themselves with the "forbidden questions" list of things that could be viewed as discriminatory, particularly if you don't hire an applicant after asking them. As I recall they are: age, sex, race, religion, national origin/birthplace, disabilities, and "family" (marital status, number of children/dependents, sexuality, etc.) –  voretaq7 May 2 '12 at 5:02
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@ramhound even for TS (DV in the UK) Clearance I would be surprised if TLA and the Milatery dont have exemptions for that. –  Neuro Nov 8 '12 at 15:08

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