Tom Payette used to think what you're thinking. Now he swears that graphology is the best predictor of how a new hire will work out

How high do you cross your t's? Does your handwriting slant to the left or to the right? Tom Payette wants to know.

Payette's interest in graphology -- the study of handwriting -- is more than passing. For the past 11 years the chief executive of Tom Payette Buick Inc., a $25-million Buick, Jaguar, and Suzuki dealership in Louisville, has used handwriting analysis as a hiring tool. "I would never be without it," he says. He claims the technique has significantly reduced his employee-turnover rate. At 36%, his annual sales-force turnover is nearly half the industry average.

Payette didn't always feel that way. "Like most people, I thought handwriting analysis was a bunch of hocus-pocus," he recalls. Then one day 12 years ago he got a call from Iris Hatfield, president of HuVista International, a 27-year-old Louisville graphology business with more than 300 clients nationwide. Out of curiosity more than anything else, Payette submitted his penmanship for Hatfield's analysis. "I was surprised she pegged me," he recalls, "but I still wasn't convinced. I didn't see anything that I felt was particularly original."

His opinion didn't change until a year later, when Hatfield asked to do a follow-up analysis, explaining that as people change, so does their handwriting. After reviewing Payette's penmanship, she made an observation that astonished him. "I see you've got your sarcasm under control," she said. He had been working on toning down an approach he'd thought was humorous but employees had found offensive. He didn't expect such a subtle behavioral change to be picked up by a stranger like Hatfield, let alone for it to be apparent in his handwriting.

In Europe, graphology is used widely in business to detect personality traits as varied as ego drive and risk aversion. In corporate America, though, it's not an easy sell, despite growing recognition of the costs of high turnover (50% of the newly hired don't last six months in the jobs they were hired for), and even though many CEOs are becoming smarter about hiring. It's been 15 years since the Library of Congress changed graphology's classification from "occult" to "behavioral sciences," yet the practice still is dogged by the belief that it's a fairground fancy. Also, it's often viewed as a threat by human-resources directors, who are often loath to cede control over the hiring process to an outsider. According to Roger Rubin, president of the 300-member National Society for Graphology, handwriting analysis is adopted only "when an important person in the company has experience in having it done."

Tom Payette Buick is one of about 6,000 U.S. companies, including temporary-staffing giant Olsten Corp., that admit to using the technique. (Many others use it but don't admit to it.) He typically applies it as a second or third screen for the most promising candidates, after reviewing rÉsumÉs and holding initial interviews. "I may develop a gut feeling about someone, but handwriting analysis gives me a standard by which to measure the person," observes Payette. It also enables him to spot undesirable qualities -- what he calls "obstacles to success," such as sensitivity to criticism.

Payette also uses handwriting analysis to assess how well an employee might be suited for a promotion or a move. He has had Hatfield devise "success profiles" for his company's management, sales, clerical, and technical jobs, basing each on a composite of the handwriting characteristics of the top performers in each job category.

The auto dealer sends handwriting samples to HuVista, and for $45 gets back a "Quick-Screen Analysis" -- one page on the writer's key traits, with a letter grade. If Payette questions something in the summary, he'll occasionally buy the full 12-page, $250 report on the candidate.

The analyses haven't been right every time, Payette concedes. But he believes strongly enough in the benefits of graphology to spend $400 a month with HuVista, and he's convinced the practice has cemented his company's reputation as a skilled hirer.

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What Tom Payette sends to graphologist Iris Hatfield, and how she views his candidate's handwriting:
We provide these three questions as examples, but any open-ended question will do.

Sometimes a person's handwriting varies at the start of writing something, so we ask for a full page in order to do an accurate analysis. Fooling the analyst would be very difficult; having the sample written on an unlined sheet of paper and having it be something spontaneous as opposed to copied help ensure that the writing is original and not too structured.

There is less spontaneity in block printing, which makes it harder to decipher. We look at the connections between letters and the pressure on the upstrokes and the downstrokes, and with printing, you can't tell as much. Script gives us the rest of the story.

We also examine the space, form, movement, rhythm, arrangement, size, and slant of the letters, along with numerous other factors. No one element stands on its own.

It's important that the sample be written with a ballpoint or fountain pen, not a felt tip; the latter obscures the pressure of a person's upstrokes and downstrokes.

At the risk of oversimplification, I'd say that some of the characteristics of Jane Doe's writing -- among them, the way she varies her forms from school-copybook style -- indicate a keen intelligence. Hers is a direct, efficient writing. She uses shortcuts to maximize the speed of her writing, such as eliminating lead-in strokes on the beginning of letters and crossing the t with a fluid, continuous stroke that leads into the next letter.

The combination of narrow right and left margins, plus the way the lower loops on her letters overlap the next line of writing, indicates that she enjoys participating in life's events to the point of becoming involved with too many activities at one time. Unless she has the opportunity for a lot of mental stimulation and interesting activities, she will become bored and could be a retention risk.

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What Hatfield sends back to Payette, and how he interprets it . . .
This individual has a master's degree, so I expected the analysis to reveal that she is smart. She had also confessed that she wasn't exactly sure what she wanted to do in life, but I was surprised that that confusion manifested itself in her handwriting. The fact that she came out A-O, or overqualified, was actually a positive in my view, as I'm looking to groom her for an eventual management position.

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. . . and how service and parts director Maggie Payette reads John Doe's analysis:
During the interview this individual appeared to be easygoing, earnest, and desperate for a job. I was in a hurry to fill the position, so I did the preliminary testing but did not wait to see the handwriting analysis before I hired him. Big mistake! I soon found that he tended to stand around and chat. He was defiant, cursing under his breath at me when I gave him a work order, and he was short-tempered when his work was criticized. When the handwriting analysis I got back listed traits such as "sarcastic" and "domineering," I nearly choked. He did not work long for me, but it was entirely too long nonetheless. If I'd waited the day or two it took for the analysis, I could have saved myself a lot of heartache, energy, and money.