Let's say that while you're working at a cash register in a department store, a close friend comes through and claims that she's a few bucks short. Do you "accidentally" ring up a lesser amount to accommodate her? People do it all the time.

And while working on that expense account, you just can't remember how much you forked out in tips. So you just make up an amount. Right?

These are the kinds of questions you can expect to find on "integrity tests," which are being used by thousands of employers to curb an estimated $20 billion a year in employee theft.

How you answer the questions could determine whether you get the job you apply for.

With the economy taking a downturn and cash increasingly hard to come by, integrity tests are gaining in popularity. Spurred in part by employer demand and in part by a 1988 congressional ban on most uses of polygraph tests, the pencil-and-paper integrity testing business has been growing about 15 percent a year for several years.

Whether this is a good idea is far from resolved.

Last month, a congressional study of integrity tests, which are used to screen an estimated 5 million job seekers a year, cast doubt on whether the test can predict tendencies to steal, cheat, abuse sick leave and generally slack off from work.

"The research base is thin and flawed, and we at the Office of Technology Assessment do not think it would be prudent to make a judgment on whether they are accurate," John Andelin, the office's assistant director, told Congress.

Test publishers say the exams are fairer than most job screening methods, including interviews and background checks. They add that the tests have withstood legal challenges and generally are not believed to discriminate racially or sexually.

Indeed, said Ryan Kuhn, president of Reid Psychological Systems, a test publisher based in Chicago, integrity tests can boost the chances of people who might otherwise be turned down, such as blacks and women.

"You tend to hire people in your own self-image unless you receive information to the contrary," he said. "So interviews typically have people hiring those who look like them, talk like them, think like them."

Integrity tests, on the other hand, emphasize a prospective employee's good points, such as honesty.

Based on the principle that honest and dishonest people have different attitudes, integrity tests ask job applicants whether they have done certain things, such as taking money or merchandise from an employer, how common they think such practices are and whether those who do such things should be punished.

The applicants most likely to steal "tend to see themselves basically as simply average people in a dishonest world" and they tolerate dishonest acts by others, said Dennis Joy, of the London House testing company in Park Ridge, Ill.

People with high levels of integrity seem to believe that dishonest behavior should be disciplined and that dishonesty is unusual, Kuhn said.

"Have you ever been so entertained by the cleverness of a crook that you hoped he would get away with it," is one sample question on the widely used Reid Report, published by Reid Psychological Systems.

Say yes, and you could blow the job.

Although test publishers rarely divulge the answers that give job applicants a bad rating, there is an underground manual, written by "Sneaky Pete" that offers help. Sneaky says stating that theft at work is common might indicate a casual attitude about stealing.

Nevertheless, attempts to beat the tests by lying do not seem to be a concern of test takers. Apparently, most people have no qualms about revealing past dishonesty.

"They're going to say, 'Yes, I've taken something, because then you'll think I'm a very honest person,' " said William Harris, of Stanton Survey, a North Carolina-based testing firm.

No doubt that such a response makes it easier for an employer to decide your fate.