Job offer might hinge on penmanship Handwriting analysis used by firms in hiring

February 03, 1997|By Diane E. Lewis | Diane E. Lewis,BOSTON GLOBE

Here's one for those who think penmanship no longer matters in the age of word processors and electronic mail.

Cognex Inc., the Massachusetts manufacturer of ultrahigh-tech "machine vision" equipment, makes all applicants for managerial positions take a handwriting test. "We want to know whether an applicant can fit into our corporate culture," explains JoAnn Woodyard, human resources director.

Olsten Corp., the Melville, N.Y., temporary work agency, uses handwriting analysis to screen all managerial and sales applicants for such traits as honesty and dependability.

And, in Manhattan, Joel Rosenthal credits graphologist Roger Rubin -- a "genius with a profound understanding of human beings and the human condition" -- with providing the insight necessary to successfully staff his 18-person consulting firm.

To be sure, it is still more trendlet than trend, more ripple than wave, but the use of handwriting analysis in employee selection appears to have gained a toehold in American industry. As employers search for new tools to add to those already used in the people-picking business, graphologists find themselves with some newfound believers in the corporate world.

How scientific is graphology?

Leo McManus, a licensed psychologist who routinely evaluates employees for corporate clients, has done research comparing the results of traditional psychological testing with the conclusions of a graphologist evaluating the same people on the basis of their handwriting. The findings, he said, were almost identical.

Heather Roberts, a testing and assessment officer at the American Psychological Association in Washington, is more skeptical. She warns that graphology has such a small research base that its validity is questionable.

And William Brown, a management professor at Babson College, scoffs at the idea of using handwriting to assess personality. It is "kind of mystical -- a little like reading tea leaves or looking at the entrails of a chicken," he says.

The use of handwriting analysis in employee selection is actually an extension of a well-established practice. For decades, handwriting analysis -- and its assumption that each person has a unique style of writing -- has been used in court and by investigators to identify forgeries and link documents with people.

Also for decades, people have dabbled in using handwriting as a window on personality.

Although such usage still meets with ridicule in many quarters -- many U.S. firms won't admit using it as a pre-employment tool, notes Rubin, president of the National Society for Graphology -- it is being used more frequently. Last year, for instance, defense attorneys for Dr. Jack Kevorkian employed graphologist Ruth Holmes to help select the jury that later acquitted the retired pathologist on charges related to his assistance in a patient's suicide.

Graphology has long been used as a hiring tool in France and Israel. In France, Rubin asserts, most firms routinely use graphology to help screen applicants.

In fact, graphology came to Cognex from France when, about three years ago, an executive who had lived and worked in France introduced the idea to officials of the Natick, Mass., company.

Woodyard, who was skeptical of the technique, recalls being shocked when a handwriting expert she was interviewing glanced at her notes and concluded -- accurately, she says -- that she is a very determined person who rarely takes no for an answer.

Today, Cognex relies on handwriting experts from Huvista International Inc. to help screen applicants for managerial and executive jobs. Typically, the company waits until it has received a candidate's handwriting analysis before doing reference checks.

"Any negatives that are identified in the handwriting are used to help check references," says Woodyard. "It helps us probe more deeply into areas. It helps us ask the right questions when we call up references. It helps knowing where a weak spot or a negative might be."

There is a hierarchy within the world of handwriting analysis.

Rubin's National Society for Graphology has about 100 members. Most of these professional graphologists, he says, were trained by one of five U.S. graphological societies that offer oral and written exams and certification.

Rubin warns that the professional graphologist should not be confused with mail-order "graphoanalysts" who say they can make physical and psychological diagnoses just by looking at the slant and shape of letters. Unlike graphoanalysts, he explains, graphologists evaluate all of a person's writing -- from how it is positioned on the page to legibility, spacing and the fluidity, rigidness or jaggedness of the words themselves. Holmes notes that signatures don't count, since they tend to reflect how a person would like to be perceived.

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