What Are They Probing For?

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One of the great things about a job, as opposed to a position as a serf or slave, is that a job is supposed to have definite boundaries. You show up in the morning, do your level best or some reasonable simulation thereof for eight to 10 hours, then you're free to go home and indulge your neurotic proclivities: gorging on Doritos, tormenting small animals, practicing Satanism, whatever. At least that's how things worked before the invention of pre-employment testing.

Now that the boss has the tools to get at them, he wants your weekends, your secret self-doubts and--to the extent that you still possess one after trying to fake your way through the tests--your soul. First there's the pre-employment drug test, now routine at more than 80% of large companies--and not just for the person who will be piloting the executive jet or loading plutonium rods into the reactor. Winn-Dixie tests the people who stack Triscuit boxes; Wal-Mart tests its people greeters. What a preference for weed over Bud as a Saturday-night relaxation aid says about your work habits has never been established, but this in no way dulls management's eagerness to pry into your personal recreational choices. You may have a brilliant resume and a unique set of skills, but all these can be trumped by your pee.

And now, arising in just the past decade or so, there's the pre-employment "personality test." This practice is at an all-time high, according to the New York Times, with 2,500 tests on the market supplied by the $400 million-a-year "personality-assessment" industry. In the past three years, I have taken five of these tests in the course of applying for a series of jobs: as a cleaning person, a supermarket clerk and as an "associate" at various big-box stores. No, I hadn't given up on writing; I was doing research for a book on the low-wage life. I was expecting to toil and sweat, even wear unflattering uniforms. But I wasn't expecting to have to share my innermost thoughts.

Some of the standard questions on these personality tests are, I suppose, justifiable. Management probably has a right to ask, for example, what you would do if you caught a fellow worker stealing, or whether you have ever gone postal on the job. But other questions bore no discernible relevance to the task at hand: Do you consider yourself a loner? Do you often think other people are talking about you behind your back? And my personal favorite, this from a test for a housecleaning job paying $6.63 an hour: Do you suffer from "moods of self-pity"?

Fortunately, the tests are easy to ace. Take the common question "In the past year, I have stolen (check dollar amount below) from my employers." If you can't guess that the answer is zero, proceed directly to the nearest park bench and begin your career as a vagrant. Or: "I tend to get into fistfights more than other people?" (Not!) and "It's easier to work when you're a little bit high." (Not, again!)

True, some of the test propositions are confusingly worded, like "Marijuana is the same as a drink." (The same? How?) But the only way I ever screwed up was by being too clever. My strategy had been to give the "right" answers, but not so blatantly right that it would look as if I was faking out the test. Then, at a Wal-Mart in Minnesota, the personnel manager informed me I had got a couple of answers "wrong," apparently forgetting that she had introduced the test by telling me there were "no right or wrong answers, just whatever you think." In one case, I had agreed that "rules have to be followed to the letter at all times" only "strongly" rather than "totally," in the hope of not appearing to be too much of a suck-up. But no, she told me, the correct answer was "totally." You can never be too much of a suck-up in low-wage America.

The mystery is why employers are so addicted to these pre-employment tests. Drug tests seldom detect anything but the most innocuous of illegal drugs, usually marijuana; and personality tests only measure some combination of literacy and hypocrisy, not your ability to get the job done. Maybe the real function of the tests is not to convey information to the employer but to the potential employee, and the information being conveyed is, You will have no secrets from us. We don't just want your time and your effort, we want your entire self.

BARBARA EHRENREICH'S Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America was published in May by Metropolitan Books