A handwritten letter might be a rare sight these days but it could hold the
key to recruitment problems. With the
controversial practice of graphology on the rise in recruitment and selection,
Sally O’Reilly put it to the test in HR
Employees enlightened by the Data Protection Act could shed some light on
the use of handwriting analysis among UK recruiters. If the British Association
of Graphology is to be believed, a surprising number of employees would find
graphologists’ reports in their personal work files. It claims the practice has
risen to 20 per cent – a statistic hard to substantiate because most British
firms will not admit to experimenting with graphology. But if there has been
such an increase in its use, should HR directors not take a second look?
Graphologists say they have had a bad press in the UK for long enough and
insist they are practising a skill with a long history, backed up by academic
"The earliest use we know of was in South India in 1000 BC," says
Erik Rees, chairman of the British Institute of Graphologists. "At that
stage, it was recognised that every person’s script was original, whatever
language they were using. It’s basic logic, really."
The first book on the subject was written in Italy in 1622. Little research
has survived between that date and 1846, when Hippolyte Michon, a French monk,
began to formulate a way of interpreting handwriting which showed the
occupation of the writer. French scholars focused on handwriting and character,
but didn’t come up with a universal system of analysis.
This gap was filled by the Germans during the 19th century, when they
developed a method of interpreting the exact degree of a slant. Other German
developments include the concept of systemised "zones" which assess
the way in which a writer arranges words on an empty page, and a method of
analysing writing systematically so that the education of the writer was
Rees says this last development answers the criticism that graphology
discriminates against those with poor handwriting. "An uneducated person
with crude handwriting could be revealed as loyal, courageous, honest,
responsible – a very fine man," he stresses. "A Cambridge don could
be shown to be a bigot, self-obsessed, greedy, full of hot air – a person of
very poor personal integrity."
Louise Herbert of the Graphology Bureau says graphology is also carefully
regulated. "Graphologists are required to be objective, work within the
limits of their knowledge and experience, and to use tact and discretion,"
she says. "They mustn’t mention attributes they discover which aren’t
relevant to the job – if the applicant is gay, for instance. And graphologists
are not allowed to work with the occult, or with astrologists."
But none of this impresses Roy Davis, head of communications at SHL, the
firm which has developed widely-used ability tests such as OPQ, the
occupational personality questionnaire. He believes that graphologists have yet
to convince employers that graphology is relevant to selecting staff.
"The key point about any tool used in recruitment is, does it add
value?" he says. "Has it got predictive validity? If we use a certain
exercise or test, will it show whether a candidate will do well in the job?
There is no evidence that graphology can do this."
For Davis, graphology comes nowhere near personality testing as a
recruitment tool. This is partly because he is doubtful of its accuracy per se,
but also because personality tests are developed with the requirements of
employers in mind.
"Test providers look at attributes which are essential to the job, and
they design questions to measure those attributes," he says. "Then
they trial the questionnaire, and once they’ve seen how it works, they throw
out the questions that don’t work." This, Davis says, is the reason that
55-60 per cent of employers use psychometric or personality tests at interview,
while only a handful use graphology for the same purpose.
But Nigel Bradley, senior lecturer in marketing at the University of
Westminster, says the statistics quoted by both graphologists and sceptics are
misleading. "Statistics are meaningless, because it’s never clear what
they refer to," he says. "If you say 20 per cent of firms use
graphology, what does that mean? Did they use them once? Do they use them
regularly?" The secrecy and even embarrassment which surrounds graphology
in the UK makes it impossible to get useful figures, he believes.
However, Bradley is certain that graphology is being widely used in the UK,
at least on an experimental basis. "I’ve yet to discover an organisation
which hasn’t used graphology in some way, at some time," he says.
"People do see it as a way of getting information that they can’t get by
Erik Rees of the British Academy of Graphologists says secrecy is endemic –
but there is recognition that handwriting analysis is a useful adjunct to other
assessment tests. He believes that no personality test exists which can measure
personal integrity – but graphology can.
"Two psychometric firms are using me to help fill gaps in their system
– but they won’t admit it," he says. "For instance, there is one test
which has 100 questions, but only one in 10 is a real question – the rest are
there to see if the person is telling the truth. These two firms have brought
me in to see why, when people fill in these tests dishonestly, they are
lying." Rees looks at the handwriting of such applicants to see what sort of
personality they have, and what lies behind their dishonesty.
Until these firms go public, however, there is still no hard evidence that
recruiters would benefit from using graphology. "I wouldn’t recommend it
as a predictor of job performance," says Simon Brittain, head of
assessment at independent business psychologist Kiddy & Partners.
"Often, it seems accurate because it lists a number of positive
attributes, which people are bound to see as accurate. Sometimes it’s so vague
it could apply to anyone."
Sarah Macpherson, senior consultant at CGR Business Psychologists, says the
onus is on graphologists to prove their worth. She reviewed existing research
on graphology when working for her PhD in 1994. "I thought the evidence
was so thin that it wouldn’t even stand up as a PhD thesis," she says.
"And I have seen nothing since which proves job performance is related
to handwriting. Graphologists need to link up with a university department, or
else carry out the research themselves."
Head of personnel, Wokingham District Council
The writer has an agile mind and can think on her feet. There
is a strong emotional input into her thinking, which could lay traps for her in
terms of subjectivity. She is open to new ideas.
She has plenty of energy and vitality, with a constant need to
keep busy. She defines goals well, but her energy is not always channelled
systematically. She needs plenty of elbow room in which to organise her
schedule, and can usually juggle several tasks. She would be bored by a lack of
The writer is adept at assessing people – and then manipulating
them in whatever way best fits the situation. She will make herself available
to people, and take care not to crowd them, as she understands the need for
space in her own life.
A lively, fun-loving person, the writer likes to get involved
in activities which satisfy her need for an audience. However, her emotions do
not run very deep. If she meets with an emotional set-back, she can pick
herself up relatively easily.
Jackie Wiltshire responds "I
think all selection methods need to recognised as pretty unscientific and to be
regarded with caution. Hence, the best practice technique is to use a variety
of methods – as well as interviews. I tested this analysis out on my personnel
managers. The view was some bits were reasonably accurate, though if you asked
someone to describe what a senior female manager in local government personnel
was like, you might have got a similar picture. For instance, it’s not
difficult to guess that a woman is good at juggling tasks.
My reaction to the working style paragraph is mixed. Since I’m
known for liking lots of sleep, my staff laughed at the idea that I had ‘plenty
of energy and vitality’. In fact this doesn’t add up with ‘understands the need
for space in her own life’, which is very accurate.
As for personality, I don’t think I am a charmer! It’s not true
that I take on roles to gain an audience. This is an extraordinary comment. I
would say the reverse is true. On the basis of this test, we won’t be
introducing graphology here."
Global head of compensation, Fidelity Investments
The writer has an analytical mind, and likes to arrange facts
in an orderly way. He is logical and critical, sometimes even intellectually
arrogant. He is adept at picking up flaws in an argument, sometimes to the
point where he might be considered nit-picking.
The candidate prides himself on his professional standards and
ethics. Not a natural delegator, he does not like leaving anything to chance.
He is not highly innovative, and prefers to improve what is already in place.
The writer is not particularly trusting, and is happy to work
in private, where he can think in peace. He can be tough and deaf to emotional
pleas where he feels it necessary to carry out his job efficiently.
He projects assertiveness, but underneath this is an
easily-wounded sensitivity. Thus he prefers not to get too deeply involved with
others, yet needs affection. Beneath the polite exterior is a component of
aggression – a tendency to criticise and a cutting sense of humour.
Mark Childs responds "Based on
this assessment I certainly wouldn’t want to work with me! As a qualified user
of psychometric and personality questionnaires for the past 15 years I remain
to be persuaded that graphology has any credible role to play in identifying or
assessing organisational talent. Graphology is probably slightly more reliable
than picking a series of statements at random, but a misleading and potentially
damaging tool to the credibility of the profession. However, there is plenty of
research showing that assessment centres (employing a series of assessment
techniques) are excellent predictors of future performance. Occupational tests
and personality questionnaires are good and sound whereas interviews are only
tolerable predictors of future job performance. In short, I do not recognise
myself in this assessment and remain of the opinion that graphology – though perhaps
a better indicator of future job performance than the car you drive – makes
interviewing look like a reliable indicator. I guess that means one of the few
points I would agree with in Lorraine’s assessment is my capacity to pick up
flaws in an argument."
Director of personnel, Vauxhall Motors
The writer is versatile, innovative and relishes challenges.
Independent and decisive, he is very able intellectually. Producing new ideas
and accepting other people’s, he can separate the important facts from the
The writer goes directly to the facts, and is able to take the
initiative, applying his logical reasoning to a problem. He can organise his
thoughts and be methodical.
Self-esteem and energy fluctuates, but he can make easy contact
with people and is loyal. The candidate is sensitive, but confident enough to
be able to endure adversity. He will not suffer fools gladly, but is harsh in
his judgement of himself.
The writer views the world clearly, but his changing emotions
give him many facets to his character. His original mind enables him to solve
his problems in unconventional ways. Overall, his courage is admirable.
Bruce Warman responds "I’m not a
great believer in graphology, but open to be convinced – agnostic I guess. A
lot of this analysis though is pretty accurate – the comments on working style
particularly so. I do believe too that I can sift facts and be decisive. I
suppose my personality is quite strong and I can be assertive (in the nicest
possible way) and the comment about my fluctuating self-esteem and energy level
is spot on, and known by few people. This is driven I believe by my setting
myself high standards that I cannot always achieve. One area where I do
disagree is that while I do like freedom and privacy, at other times I really
enjoy the social round. I guess we are schizophrenic there. I’ll give this 80
per cent – better that I expected."
Footnote: the handwriting experts
required to know age, sex and where the candidates were educated prior to their