The Write Stuff: What the Evidence Says about Using Handwriting Analysis in Hiring

Article excerpt


In 1994, Stanford business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer wrote what has since become a widely read book on the relationship between human resource management (HRM) practices and organizational success called Competitive Advantage Through People. In his book, Pfeffer argues convincingly that the ability to harness the capabilities of the organization's human resources is more important to sustaining organizational effectiveness than are the traditional sources of competitive advantage such as proprietary technology or access to capital. While traditional sources of competitive advantage certainly cannot be ignored, increasingly competitive markets dictate that the ability to attract, hire, and develop the most capable talent will be the single most important long-term determinant or organizational success.

While it has always been difficult to attract capable and motivated employees, the realities of the labor force that include an aging population, a shrinking pool of younger workers, and a severe mismatch between the technological skills in demand and those skills available in the labor force, mean that attaining competitive advantage through the capabilities of a work force is more difficult than ever. To begin with, it is sometimes hard to induce people to apply for jobs. In response, employers have turned to a variety of alternative and creative recruiting techniques to attract larger pools of applicants. However, it is also difficult to select the best individuals from among those who do apply, and it does little good to attract more applicants if an organization is unable to accurately select individuals that best fit the company's needs. As a result, the employee selection process including screening and testing has become more critical than ever. There is evidence that employers have been willing to tr y a variety of selection tools -- some tried-and-true, others unproven -- in an effort to hire those most likely to provide that sought after competitive advantage.

One of those selection tools has been handwriting analysis, or graphology. This controversial selection device uses the systematic analysis of an applicant's handwriting sample to infer something about that individual's personality, his or her fit with the organization, or probable job performance. The purpose of this article is to reexamine the use of this technique, look at some of the research on its effectiveness, and determine if it is a tool managers can use as part of the process of staffing an organization.

Why is it important to take another look at graphology? In a recent edition of their popular human resource management textbook, John Bernardin and Joyce Russell discuss what they consider to be "glaring discrepancies" between human resource management as practiced and what is known from human resource research (Bernardin & Russell, 1998, p. 5). One of the most vivid examples of this gap is that HR research tells us that graphology is not a valid way in which to select employees, yet the use of graphology remains widespread in Europe and is actually on the increase in the United States. Estimates from the 1980s suggested substantial and increasing use of graphology, with more than 3,000 U.S. firms, and perhaps as many as 85% of European firms, using it. (McCarthy, 1988; Rafaeli & Klimoski, 1983), while other sources report that its use has grown since that time (Bernardin & Russell, 1998, p. 147; Driver et al., 1996). A host of anecdotal evidence suggests that managers routinely use graphology for screening j ob candidates (see, for example, Blanchi, 1996 and McCarthy, 1998) or in the workplace security (Brayer, 1998).

It seems that manages have considerably more faith in handwriting analysis as a tool for identifying applicant qualities than do researchers. This is an interesting paradox that deserves some attention. We focus our attention, therefore, on what research says about graphology to determine if the Barnardin and Russell criticism is justified, or conversely, if handwriting analysis may have some role in the staffing process. …