Handshake
Monday, October 14, 2019
By Tom Snee

Greg Stewart’s conclusion seemed simple enough--the handshake is, indeed, as important as everyone says it is when looking for a new job.

It was, in fact, the first study to quantify that importance, concluding that a handshake seems to be a trigger that sets off a job interviewer’s overall impression of the interviewee. It’s more important, even, than dress or physical appearance, while a dead fish can end the interview before it even begins.

“We’ve always heard that interviewers make up their mind about a person in the first two or three minutes of an interview, no matter how long the interview lasts,” says Stewart, professor of management and entrepreneurialism in the Tippie College of Business. “We found that the first impression begins with a handshake that sets the tone for the rest of the interview.”

The study was based on a unique experiment that took advantage of mock job interviews the university schedules frequently with Iowa City-area business managers to give students a low stakes opportunity to improve their interviewing skills.

He worked with interviewers to set up a system where the students also met at various times during the process with five trained handshake raters who subtly introduced themselves and shook hands, but otherwise did not participate in the interviews.

The handshake raters scored each of 98 students on his or her handshake, while the interviewers graded each student’s overall performance and hireability. The two group’s scores were then compared.

Stewart said the researchers found that those students who scored high with the handshake raters were also considered to be the most hireable by the interviewers.

Why is the handshake important? Stewart suspects it’s because a handshake is one of the few things that provides a glimpse into the person’s individuality during the first few minutes of an interview.

“Job seekers are trained how to act in a job interview, how to talk, how to dress, how to answer questions, so we all look and act alike to varying degrees because we’ve all been told the same things,” he says. “But the handshake is something that’s perhaps more individual and subtle, so it may communicate something that dress or physical appearance doesn’t.” 

Generally, he said students who scored high on the handshake were seen as having more extroverted personalities, so they scored better with the interviewers because of greater ease with small talk, eye contact and other social skills.

But those whose handshakes were weak and wimpy generally seemed to have less gregarious personalities and were less impressive to the interviewers.

“We probably don’t consciously remember a person’s handshake or whether it was good or bad,” Stewart says. “But the handshake is one of the first non-verbal clues we get about the person’s overall personality, and that impression is what we remember.”

That take turned Stewart into one of the country’s foremost experts on the handshake. Since his study quantifying the importance of a handshake in a job interview was published in 2008, he’s had dozens of media interviews with business and career journalists. It even took him to New York City for a live interview on NBC’s Today Show in 2011.

Stewart said the elements of a good handshake were a firm, complete grip, eye contact and vigorous up-and-down movement. “A lot of what they teach in books about how to get a job,” he says.

This may work against women, however, because their grips tend to be not as strong. Nevertheless, Stewart said that other research has shown that women are frequently stronger in other non-verbal communication skills that seemed to offset their less brawny grips.

And women who did have a strong handshake seemed to have an advantage over men.

“Those women seemed to be more memorable than men who had an equally strong handshake,” he said. “A really good handshake made a bigger impact on the outcome of the interview for the women than it did for the men.”

Stewart’s paper was published in the September 2008 issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.