Human Resources News & Insights

Was failed polygraph test the real reason she wasn’t promoted?

An employee fails a polygraph test after some cash is stolen, but the company can’t prove she actually committed the crime. Later, she’s passed over for a promotion. She sues, saying she was unfairly punished for a theft she hadn’t committed. Did she win?

Read the dramatized version of this real-life case and see if you can determine the outcome.

The scene

“Why are we still dealing with this Marla Eders issue?” asked VP Adam Miller. “She resigned months ago.”

HR manager Cassie Lundgren thumbed through a pile of paperwork. “Marla claims we failed to promote her to general manager because she failed that polygraph last year,” she said.

“Fill me in on what happened,” said Adam.

“There were only a handful of people with access to our cash deposits,” Cassie said. “When one went missing, we had three employees submit to a polygraph.

“Two passed and Marla failed,” she continued. “We could never prove that Marla did it, so we never took any action. But it certainly raised a trust issue with us.”

“That wasn’t the only issue we had with Marla, right?” asked Adam.

“No,” said Cassie, reaching into a filing cabinet and pulling out Marla’s file. “We disciplined her for everything from tardiness to safety violations.

“After that last episode where she cursed at a co-worker, we had to let her go,” she added.

“And now Marla’s claiming we didn’t promote her because of the failed polygraph,” Adam said.

Marla went ahead with her lawsuit against the Cassie’s firm.

Did the company win?

The decision

Yes, Cassie’s company won when the case was dismissed  on summary judgment.

Marla claimed she was passed over for a promotion because she failed a polygraph test – even though a full investigation never proved she had anything to do with the missing cash deposits.

And Cassie’s company went on to admit that the failed test had raised an issue of trust.

But the judge ruled in the company’s favor for one reason: Marla’s long history of performance problems.

Marla’s issues, from lateness to safety violations – with the company’s paperwork to support its claims – made it clear Marla wasn’t the right fit for the position.

Analysis: A risky (but legal) tool

Polygraphing people to get to the bottom of suspected fraud is a bold move – and it may not be the right one for every company.

But polygraph tests are legal for private firms under certain circumstances, like when an employee is “reasonably suspected” of involvement in a workplace theft, embezzlement, etc., that resulted in specific economic loss to its employers – like the theft of the cash receipts did in this case.

Cite: Bass v. Wendy’s of Downtown, Inc.

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