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 September 1, 1999

Lie detectors no excuse for poor management

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson wants employees at Los Alamos National Labs and other nuclear research facilities to take lie detector tests to detect and discourage espionage. We are all for eliminating espionage.

But lie detectors (polygraphs) are the wrong security answer and the wrong management answer.

The first problem is that there’s a good reason that Congress banned nearly all uses of polygraph tests in the private sector. Studies by scientists outside the polygraph industry have shown that the random, shotgun approach advocated by Secr etary Richardson is ineffective. Hoopla aside, polygraphs don’t “detect lies.” They measure physical signs (like sweaty palms, elevated pulse and changes in breathing) that may indicate stress and are claimed to be associated with lying. But some people get stressed when telling lies, but many (presumably well-practiced) don’t. And a lot of people get stressed only by the procedure.

Some people who are lying will happen to be identified; as lab employees have pointed out, some people who are telling the truth will be incorrectly fingered. More chilling from the standpoint of nuclear security is that some people who are lying will be “cleared” by the polygraph from scrutiny they deserve.

The second problem is more fundamental. Lie detector testing makes it too easy for managers to abdicate responsible management. “Honesty testing,” whether in the form of polygraphs, voice stress analyzers or paper-and-pencil integrity tests is no substitute for a strategic, comprehensive approach to security.

According to press reports, the fundamental causes of security problems at Los Alamos are a lack of focus on security as a critical performance objective, and managerial arrogance about oversight and security. From a strategic perspective, security goes hand-in-hand with managing nuclear energy, in the same way that sanitation goes hand-in-hand with health care or food service.

Contrast the way another government agency, the U.S. Forest Service, links safety with fire fighting, in ways the Energy Department has failed to strategically link security with nuclear research. The first strategic link is that the primary duty of every Forest Service employee — regardless of position — is to fight wildland fire. Fire-qualified office receptionists will find themselves on the fireline, and a district ranger may find himself or herself reporting on a fire to a subordinate with more fire-fighting experience.

The second strategic link ties safety to every aspect of fighting a fire. Fire-fighting safety is the focus of daily and weekly meetings, training on how to run a chain saw or use a Pulaski, and is the foundation of crew leader training and handbooks. Safety is institutionalized in myriad practices, from “the right tool for the right job,” to “never step outside the truck without your hard hat on.” According to Congressional reports, DOE was not similarly successful in making security part and parcel of nuclear research.

We have seen similar situations in the private sector. One resort had a significant problem with cash shortages among ticket-office cashiers. Accounting insisted that human resources honesty-test applicants. The result was that a labor shortage became a crisis, because 30 percent of the applicants failed the test, yet the shortage rate didn’t go down. It turns out that the ticket office manager had been asking accounting for a cash control system for years. Accounting’s insistence on an honesty test allowed them to abdicate their responsibility for instituting effective financial systems.

A manager we know who began work at a major retailer reported that more than half of the group hired with him had been fired within a month for theft. The reason became apparent when he told us about the first time he alerted his supervisor to a customer leaving a dressing room with unpurchased clothes. His supervisor told him not to worry, if the stolen clothes didn’t have a security tag on them they “weren’t valuable enough to justify confronting the customer.”

This approach lies at the heart of the problems of the Energy Department (and many other employers). DOE’s responsibility is to institute a culture of security and practices that make security part of the everyday job of conducting research, not to express astonishment at the consequences of systematically failing to do so.

From a management perspective, lie detectors will solve none of what ails the nuclear labs, and will create the equivalent of the guard dog that doesn’t bark for those who engage in espionage and lie successfully: They may make things worse by giving a false sense of security.

The former cabinet secretary to follow in this matter is George Schultz, who blocked random polygraph testing for state department employees as secretary of state. A reporter asked him if he would ever submit to a polygraph himself. Once, he replied, and the day he did so would be the day he resigned.

On Management, written each month in cooperation with The Center for Human Function & Work (CHF&W) in Boulder, examines critical issues about managing the human side of a business. Joe Rosse is associate professor of management at CU-Boulder and an associate of the CHF&W. Bob Levin is director of the CHF&W. Comments, questions and topics are encouraged and can be mailed to The Business Report or e-mailed to Joseph.Rosse@Colorado.Edu.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson wants employees at Los Alamos National Labs and other nuclear research facilities to take lie detector tests to detect and discourage espionage. We are all for eliminating espionage.

But lie detectors (polygraphs) are the wrong security answer and the wrong management answer.

The first problem is that there’s a good reason that Congress banned nearly all uses of polygraph tests in the private sector. Studies by scientists outside the polygraph industry have shown that the random, shotgun approach advocated by Secr etary Richardson is ineffective. Hoopla…

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