The summer after my Freshman year
of college, I took a part time job at an Office Depot in Nashville, Tennessee.
It wasn’t my first choice for summer work, but I had already signed on for my
second summer working part-time as a student runner at Vanderbilt University on
weekday afternoons. Given that I didn’t have a car of my own, it was either
find a job in the area to occupy my morning hours or spend 5 hours every day
wandering the campus of a university where I was not a student. Vanderbilt has
a beautiful campus, but since my job there already required me to walk around
it for up to 2 hours every day, I felt I’d grow tired of it quickly.
As part of the Office Depot application process, I had to take a drug test. Let me point out that this is the only job—out of about ten I’ve had throughout my life—for which I had to take a drug test. For three years in college I tutored seven-year-olds; no drug test required. I did not—and do not—use drugs, so I expected it to be a breeze—I’d walk into the clinic, pee in a cup, and have them declare me coke-free and employable. It ended up being a two-hour ordeal that I will not explain here because this is not a story about that test. I passed that test, despite almost fainting in the shower that morning, vomiting, and being forced to chug black coffee to induce peeing. Oh yes. I passed that test and took a job as a cashier at the Office Depot on West End Avenue for the Summer of 2004.
It ended up being a pretty okay job. Nashville summers are hot and sticky and largely miserable, but the store was well air conditioned, and since most people don’t like thinking of office supplies in the summer, we had few customers. We were actually open on the Fourth of July. Guess what people don’t buy on the Fourth of July? Printer paper and binder clips. We did have a few customers come in that day, including one up-and-coming country music star who I accidentally offended by not recognizing him. But that, too, is another story.
I have a good work ethic, and I don’t like it when people yell at me. I was the perfect part-time, hourly retail employee. I got paid minimum wage, but some innate drive to please people—a trait Darwinism really should have stamped out of the population by now—coupled with an equally destructive addiction to stress drove me to be attentive, courteous, and efficient. Looking back, I’m surprised they didn’t promote me to manager by August.
At the end of the summer, I left Nashville to go back to school. The following June, I returned, eager to pick up extra cash. First stop: my old Office Depot. I expected they’d welcome me back with open arms. Unfortunately, I was met by a staff that had been turned over by about 90%, so I had to start from scratch. I dutifully filled out an application, citing my demonstrated excellence at the job.
“Thanks,” the manager—a different one from the one I’d had—said as I handed him the application. “Now you need to take the personality test.”
You see, after I’d started the job the previous summer, corporate had augmented their application process by requiring all prospective employees to take a short, Myers-Briggs-like test to see if they were fit to join the esteemed ranks of Office Depot’s frontline employees. I thought I’d get a pass since the company should have some sort of file on me that showed I hadn’t engaged in any deviant or troubling behavior while on the job. I was wrong.
I took the test on a computer located smack-dab in the middle of the entryway to the store. Why they put it there, I’ll never know. Maybe so customers walk in and think “Oh wow. The employees at Office Depot must be the cream of the crop if they can pass a computerized personality test while standing next to a checkout line! I will spend money here!”
The questions were pretty straightforward, designed to test my ethics (“If you saw a customer stealing, what would you do?”) and people skills (“Is the following statement true or false: ‘I like to be around people all of the time’”?)
Looking back, I can see it was questions like this last one that tripped me up. I am a smart person but a terrible test taker. I’m too literal. So if a question is phrased at all ambiguously, I will answer it as written, which is often the opposite of how it was intended. I almost failed my written driver’s test this way. But, again, I passed that test.
I finished the test, left the store, and waited patiently for a phone call telling me I was, once again, gainfully employed by one of the biggest office supply store chains in America.
A few days passed. The call didn’t come. Meanwhile, I started an internship—my first one ever!—at a local magazine. The magazine didn’t have a formal internship program. I’d gotten the position by cold calling the editor and asking if he needed cheap—or even free—help over the summer. It was a pretty easy process. I was bright-eyed and eager and what respectable media enterprise turned down cheap labor?
But the part-time, minimum wage internship wasn’t helping me rake in the dough I was hoping to make. It also wasn’t keeping me occupied most days of the week, and I was restless.
During my lunch break one day, I called Office Depot again to see the status of my application. Perhaps the manager had been extraordinarily busy that week. Perhaps there had been an accident involving an Office Depot freight truck that had left the store out of stock of toner or highlighters. What if there were thousands of paper clips lining the freeway somewhere and dozens of angry customers waving sheaths of uncollated documents around the store demanding attention? No wonder she hadn’t looked at my resume.
The phone rang. A man answered.
For a second I thought I’d dialed the wrong number and inadvertently woken this poor person. Office Depot employees don’t answer the store phone with a drawling, tired “Hello.” They answer with a perky, “Office Depot, how can I help you?” At least, that’s how I used to answer the phone when I worked there.
“Uhhh…is this the Office Depot on West End?”
“Can I speak to a manager about an application I filled out last week.”
“Uh yeah. One second.”
I listened to some hold music until a manager picked up.
“Hi, yes. My name is Brooke Carey. I worked for your store last summer and just applied for my old job but haven’t heard anything. Can you tell me the status of my application?”
“Oh yes,” he said after a pause during which he retrieved my application. “We reviewed your application but unfortunately we can’t ask you in for an interview because you didn’t pass the personality test.”
The manager went on to explain that, under the new employment policy, applicants had to score high enough on the personality test in order to even be brought in for an interview. The fact that I had worked there for three months the previous summer and had never had a complaint did not matter—I know this because I asked. I asked if he could tell me what my score was or why it didn’t meet Office Depot’s clearly rigorous criteria.
“I can’t tell you that.”
Figuring that if I continued to argue my case, the manager would simply throw “corporate policy” out as his default response to my questions, I hung up, defeated. This was the first test I’d ever failed.
I called my mom, furious, but also a little amused. She was, as usual, indignant on my behalf.
Later that day when I picked my mom up from work, I found her in the back office on the phone. She mouthed to me excitedly, “Brooke, I’m on the phone with the district manager of Office Depot!”
I had not asked her to do this.
“Here,” she said into the phone. “My daughter is here, why don’t you talk to her.”
I protested. As irritating as the Office Depot reapplication process had been, and as pissed as I was that a corporation wouldn’t look past a clearly phony personality test in order to actually evaluate its job candidates, I didn’t relish the idea of making a fool of myself, with my mother’s help, to a man I didn’t know who, most likely had better things to do and already resented me and my mother for preventing him from going home to his family.
“Hello,” I said after my mom shoved the phone into my hand.
The manager introduced himself and told me he could tell me my score on the test since I’d asked directly. “We don’t normally do this, though.” Boy, did I feel special.
“It looks like you scored just fine on three of the four categories we test for, but, unfortunately, you didn’t score high enough in the energy category.”
The energy category. “What about that guy who answered the phone at the store when I called today? The one who sounded like he’d just woken up from a long night of drinking? How high did he score in the energy category?” I wanted to ask this, but I refrained.
“Unfortunately, despite your previous employment with us, our corporate policy dictates that we cannot consider any applicant who fails to score high enough in all four categories.”
Thus ended my career at Office Depot. Later that week, I went and got a job at Staples.