Lie detectors to be used to detect genuine sickness absence


Lie detectors could soon be used to deter workers from ‘pulling sickies’, after the government hailed trials of the technology a success.

Employer groups welcomed the idea of using the Voice Risk Analysis (VRA) system to tell when staff are lying when they call in to say they are too ill to work.

Anti-fraud minister James Plaskitt last week announced that pilot projects using VRA to detect false benefit claims in local authorities had been a triumph. A year-long trial at Harrow Borough Council, one of seven that concluded this month, saved the authority more than £420,000 by identifying false benefits claims.

The technology, developed by outsourcing firm Capita with technology specialist Digilog UK, works by picking up changes in a caller’s voice. It then makes thousands of calculations before telling the phone operator what to say to encourage the caller to withdraw their claim.

Lawrence Knowles, managing director of software and outsourcing firm Midland HR, told Personnel Today that VRA would soon be a useful tool in reducing sickness absence.

“If lie detectors can detect benefit fraud, then why not look at the application of the technology in absence management?” he said.

“If you know there is a lie detector on the other end of the phone, I’m pretty sure most people would think twice [about lying].”

Many employers already outsource their absence management to specialists, who often use nurses to field calls, assess risk and deter fake sickness.

“You only have to review what technology is being patented by the large technology vendors to realise the concepts surrounding human capital management are set to change soon,” added Knowles.

Susan Anderson, director of HR policy at the CBI, said the technology could be “very useful”.

“Research from the CBI and [insurance company] AXA shows that employers believe 12% of absence is not genuine, and that these sickies amount to 21 million lost days every year, at a cost of £1.6bn,” she said.

However, she said that employers did not want to behave like Big Brother, and that the technology would be best used as part of a range of incentives and penalties.

Below, employment lawyer Selwyn Blyth on the legal risks associated with employers using the lie detector software to manage absence.

Sick leave survey statistics

Sick leave targets of 1% are just as achievable as those of 5%, according to a comprehensive survey out this week.

The EEF Sickness Absence Report 2008 shows that companies can make big reductions in the amount of leave their employees take.

“We found that a sickness absence target of 1% to 1.9% was just as achievable as one of 4% or greater. Absence targets should be bold,” said the survey.

The average amount of time lost to sick leave across the 629 EEF members that responded to the survey was 3%, or 6.8 working days per employee per year.

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