May 14th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

You knew I'd make all that relate to Forbidden Knowledge somehow, didn't you?

One of the main things that social conservatives are reacting against, that drives their counter-revolution, is the fear of what will happen now that society has lost one of its main tools of social control. Consider the following true/false question:

Poll #493695 True or False: Theft by employees is a significant problem for businesses.

Answer the question truthfully, to the best of your knowledge:


Answer the question the way you would answer it on a job application for a job other than the ones listed below.


Answer the question the way you would answer it if you were applying for a corporate security job.


Answer the question the way you would answer it if you were applying for a management position.


I bumped my nose against this one years ago, during one of my various periods of unemployment. sevenstars7 was trying to help me figure out why I couldn't get through the job application and interview process, basically ever, and this question came up. At the time, she was working for a company that developed and scored employee-screening multiple-choice and true/false tests, the kind of tests that include questions like this. And according to her, the test is programmed to score a huge negative, as in automatically unqualified for employment, if you answer the question "true." So the preferred answer for society is for you to answer false, false, false, and false. True, false, false, and false is just barely acceptable, but suggests an attitude problem that will probably cause you problems in your job.

Now, this boggled my mind, and it took me years to wrap my head around this. Eventually, I came to understand what she said. I don't know if I can explain it to all of you, though, because even I don't have much to add to her explanation, which is that all employers depend on peer pressure to keep the level of employee theft, sabotage, and so on to acceptable levels. In other words, they think that if you think anything other than, "I'm the only one who wants to do this, who's ever done this, and it must be because I'm a bad person," then you'll steal less than if you thought anything else.

Did I ever mention that I've been fired from two separate jobs where it was, in part, because I wouldn't steal from my employer? In both cases, it involved padding expense reports for business travel. In both places, a certain amount of it was standard practice. In both places, I didn't do it. For one thing, I'm too proud to steal. For another, I've always figured that I'd have less trouble getting my travel requests approved, and there'd be more money in the budget for travel, if I didn't waste any. And on some level, I think it's because I learned all the way back at the age of 6 that I just plain can not perceive the cues that the neurologically typical use to tell, somehow, when it's OK to break a rule and when it's not. But in both the McDonnell Douglas job and the MasterCard job, I eventually had both my own management chain and the auditors in accounting take me to task for not claiming the full daily allowance for meals and taxi fare. It was explained to me that the policy allowed claiming up to that many dollars per day in each category without receipts, and therefore it was expected that I would claim that much, and if I chose to spend less than that, I was entitled to keep that money. When I put the accounting department people who told me this on the spot and asked them if they were specifically instructing me to report false information on my expense report, they treated it as if I had completely changed the subject, and they huffily informed me that reporting false information on an expense report was an immediate-termination offense. So I asked them if I was supposed to claim the whole permitted amount for meals if I didn't spend that much, and they again treated it as if I had changed the subject, and said yes, that was exactly what I was supposed to do. With neither accountant was I able to get them to admit, or maybe even to see themselves, that the two questions had anything to do with each other.

One boss in the management chain above me at each corporation took me aside not long before I was fired, and told me that I was in huge trouble with the company. Other people felt that the fact that I wasn't padding my expense accounts meant that I thought that doing so was dishonest, and that therefore I was going to turn them in to the auditors. In both cases, I explained that it wasn't my job to enforce the social and financial norms of the company; if management was OK with the practice, and auditing was OK with the practice, then it was of no interest to me whether anybody did or didn't do it. I explained that I had my own reasons, which had nothing to do with anybody else's honesty or dishonesty, for filling out my expense reports the way I did. I might as well have been speaking Martian.

But in a world where gossip travels at the literal speed of light (with at most a 60 word-per-minute delay at the beginning of the transmission), in a world where the 24 hour news cycle constantly churns up new scandal, and in an emerging world where people will be able to see that scandal with their own eyes, whether there were cameras there or not, how will they maintain the illusion, the illusion that they seem to feel is so important to keeping the behavior of the neurologically typical within the boundaries of accepted social norms, the illusion that nobody else has ever done, or even wanted to do, what they are doing or feel driven to do?