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Truth or Consequences

By Mike Causey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 21 1997; Page B02

Thanks to lawsuits, legislation and changing attitudes, most potential employers -- federal or private -- no longer dare ask job applicants questions that once were standard. It's an invasion of privacy to ask such questions as: Are you married? Or pregnant? So is asking for other personal information, such as age, race, sex or the ability to perform certain chores, such as lift 150 pounds.

Federal agencies keep close track of race and sex data for statistical purposes. But employees or applicants, in most cases, don't have to reveal themselves. That forces bosses or those assigned to keep such data to make some interesting -- and sometimes very unscientific -- guesses.

Having a brush or two with the law -- unless one is currently being featured on Fox TV's "America's Most Wanted" -- no longer in and of itself is a bar to many jobs.

Lots of positions once were limited to either men or women. Or people with specific backgrounds, body types or outlooks on life.

The Pony Express, for example, advertised for young men who were skinny and orphans, with a death wish. Today such limits would produce a rash of lawsuits from women and people of either sex entitled to celebrate Mother's or Father's Day, not to mention portly men or those who have everything to live for.

The Government Printing Office and the U.S. Patent Office at one time would not hire women as typists because "women are emotionally and physically unsuited to operate" complex machines, such as typewriters.

In today's job market, openings once limited by sex, age, physical ability, size or other criteria are now -- at least on paper -- open to everybody.

All this is by way of introducing the subject of job skills from a bygone era. It is taken from a copy of the mid-1940s job requirements for FBI agents.

The application shows that things change. A lot. And that there was a time -- and a reason -- when being a skilled busybody, a snoop if you like, was not only an asset but a federal job requirement. At least for FBI agents.

Here are some of the job requirements for an FBI agent position -- starting salary $3,200 a year -- at the close of World War II.

Back then, agent applicants could be as old as 40. (The maximum age now is 36.) But because they had to be at least 5 feet, 7 inches tall, that excluded most women, which, some people say, was the whole point. Agent applicants could own and wear eyeglasses. But the glasses had to bring the agent to a corrected vision of 20/20, or no badge.

Best of all, in those days before electronic bugs were everywhere, there was this requirement: "APPLICANTS MUST BE ABLE TO HEAR AN ORDINARY CONVERSATION AT A DISTANCE OF AT LEAST 15 FEET WITH EITHER EAR."

Applicants today don't need to prove that they can hear bad guys chatting at six paces. And eyeglasses -- and not-so-tall agents -- are okay. Applicants must come to the job with uncorrected vision "not worse than 20/200." If the vision standards keep changing, somebody, some day, may demand that applicants be able to hear an ordinary conversation at a distance of at least 15 feet with at least one ear.

Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Co.

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