You Are What You Wear
“Send a message through your clothing and be aware of the details,” is solid advice from international business dress expert Barbara Pachter, who lectures, consults, and writes on the topic.
So what are the wrong messages to send? Pachter (www.pachter.com) cuts to the chase, naming eight succinct knock-out punches you don’t want your costume to deliver at job interviews:
- Wearing clothes that are too big: You’ll look like a little kid in your big brother or sister’s clothing! Your clothing needs to fit.
- Wearing skirts that are too short: A short skirt draws attention to legs. Is that where you want people to look?
- Showing cleavage: Sexy isn’t a corporate look. Low-cut tops that expose cleavage draw attention to this body part and are not appropriate in the office.
- Wearing short socks: Socks that fall down expose skin and hairy legs when men sit or cross their legs.
- Using color to draw attention to your clothing: Do you want to be remembered for what you said or what you wore? A man wearing bright green slacks, which are not typical corporate clothing, would probably be labeled as “the man in green pants.”
- Wearing clothing with inappropriate messaging or design: A candidate wearing a shirt with small teddy bears won’t get the job — his interviewers will just be talking about his shirt.
- Forgetting about your shoes: People notice shoes. Your shoes must be clean, polished, and in good condition.
- Ignoring your grooming: Your clothes need to be clean and pressed. No safety pins for buttons. No holes. No frays. No chipped nail polish. No nose hairs. They become distractions that lead to no job offer.
Starting Well to End Well
You set the stage for the halo effect when you make your appearance appropriate for the job you seek. That is, when the interviewer likes you right away, the interviewer may assume that if you excel in one area (your image), you excel in others. Some potential employers make a subconscious hiring decision within seconds of meeting a candidate and spend the rest of the interview validating their initial impression. With these stakes in mind, be sure your appearance is a real curtain raiser.
Minding the Three Commandments of Style
By choosing appropriate costuming for the job, you signal employers that you respect their company’s culture and that you care enough to expend the effort to make the right impression.
Begin your mastery of interviewing impressions with these three key principals of costuming yourself in the right team uniform.
Dress to fit the job and the job’s culture
Social DNA draws people to others who are like them. When extending a warm welcome to a newcomer, you pay compliments that communicate the message “You’re one of us.”
Companies and organizations are made of people working as a group to accomplish common goals. An anthropologist may think of such a group as a kind of workplace tribe.
When your choice of clothing or your grooming keeps you from looking as though you’re a member of the tribe, you create an image of an outsider, perhaps causing the interviewer to perceive you as “not one of us.” You must make the effort to look as though you absolutely belong on the company’s tribal land.
How can you find out about the company’s dress code and grooming conventions? You have several options:
- Visit the company’s website and search for videos of employees. Pay attention to how employees dress at the level of position you seek — clerk, manager, or executive.
- Check for beards, mustaches, and long, loose hair. Notice whether the men are wearing sport jackets or suits, or simply shirts with or without a tie. Observe whether the women are in pants or skirts.
- Call the human resources office and ask about the company’s dress code.
- Use your personal network — or an online social network — to find an employee whom you can quiz.
- Loiter near the workplace and observe employees coming and going.
Correctly interpreting the company dress code is the Number One Commandment to follow in dressing for job interviews.
Think of interviewing attire as a costume
As I emphasize repeatedly in this chapter, interview attire is a work-related costume. With a few exceptions, which I touch on later in this chapter under “Selecting creative fashion,” the job interview is not an outlet for flaming self-expression.
(A rookie job seeker once debated this point with me, insisting on her right to wear whatever she chose to wear to an interview: “My personal style and how I look is my business,” she petulantly insisted. “True,” I agreed, “and the person an interviewer chooses to hire is the interviewer’s business.”)
When you’re not sure whether your interview wardrobe borders on bizarre or is more appropriate for after-hours wear, apply this litmus test:
Would my favorite film director cast me as a person portraying XYZ employee if I auditioned for the part wearing this get-up?
By wearing an interview-appropriate costume, you’re not selling out your authentic self; you’re moving on. And if fortune and preparation smile, you’re moving on to a better place: making the short list of candidates and then being hired.
“Look the part, and the part plays itself”
The old theater adage in the headline is the Number Three Commandment in constructing your interview image, says Jack D. Stewart of Abilene, Texas.
A retired recruiter, Stewart once accepted a recruiting search for an industrial sales rep. The job order came from a new client. Stewart’s firm began referring quality candidates, recommending to the candidates that they dress conservatively for their interviews, meaning business suits, well-pressed shirts, and silk ties.
Six interviews with different individuals brought the same puzzling response from the new client: “Each candidate was basically qualified, but not what we’re looking for.”
Stewart’s firm had a policy of reevaluating a client’s assignment when six candidates were referred and none received a job offer. A recruiter was sent to the client’s offices to uncover the problem.
Imagine the recruiter’s astonishment when he entered an office filled with people dressed in very casual slacks and sport shirts sans ties. “Well,” the recruiter thought, “these must be the foot soldiers. What does the captain wear?” The recruiter found out soon enough when the sales manager arrived to greet him in a pair of black work shoes topped by white socks.
“From that day forward,” Stewart explains, “we dressed down our candidates for their interviews with that client — but we couldn’t bring ourselves to tell them to wear white socks. Finally, one of our referrals was hired. The experience is a good reminder for job interviewees: When in Rome, wear a toga.”
Changing with the Times: Dress Codes
Is the following statement true or false? “You can never be overdressed. Even if they say to wear business casual, it’s appropriate for you to be in a suit and tie.”
If you guessed “true,” you probably guessed wrong.
A new wind is blowing into American workplaces defining what constitutes acceptable clothing to wear on the job. And to a certain extent, the lightening up on dress codes has spilled over into job interviewing.
First, a little background: I can’t remember a time when virtually every job interviewing expert hasn’t hammered home the basic tenet that dressing conservatively is the safest route. Period.
That advice often retains validity, but here’s the thing: For many people, the notion of what dressing conservatively means has changed. Traditional suit-and-tie wisdom is no longer universally and automatically correct. Conservative, in many cases, now means carefully selected business casual apparel.
Surveys spotlight more casual wardrobe
A handful of studies over the past decade confirm that workplace dress codes have become more liberal than they were back in the starchier 20thcentury days:
- A 2011 survey on behalf of CareerBuilder (2,500 U.S. hiring managers and 3,900 U.S. workers) found that employers are becoming more relaxed about dress codes. Fifteen percent reported they are right now changing to a more casual dress code.
- A 2006 tally of employers conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers revealed that companies seem to be considerably more relaxed about appearance these days. Just 12 percent said that a male job candidate wearing an earring would be a negative, and only 28 percent said they’d frown at weird hair color (like blue, green, or violet).
- A 2003 survey by Business Research Lab, a research and management consulting firm, noted that about half of respondents said the dress code where they work had changed in the previous two years; by three to one, they said the code had become more casual.
- A 2001 poll by the Society for Human Resource Management reported that 87 percent of U.S. companies allow some form of casual dress in the workplace.
The casual and laid-back dressing trend working its way across the country has moved beyond workers who work alone or in creative groups.
Even public-meeting sales professionals have jumped on the casual fashion runway — but not all. Many, such as those in medical, pharmaceutical, and financial investments sales, continue to wear a suit.
Body art is drawing new fans
While some companies continue to drop the curtain on job seekers with tattoos and body piercings, the practice is now so common that employers would be severely limiting their candidate pool if they rejected everyone with a tat or a nose ring.
A 2010 Pew Research Center report on Millennials aged 18 to 29 reveals that 38 percent have ink. Tattooed Gen Xers aged 30 to 45 came in at a close 32 percent. Across all generations. The Food and Drug Administration estimates that as many as 45 million Americans have at least one tattoo.
As for bling, nearly one in four Millennials has a piercing somewhere other than the earlobe. (Your guess on its location is as good as mine.)
An even more surprising 2006 statistic reported by the National Association of Colleges and Employers notes that two-thirds of employers surveyed said body piercing would not strongly influence a hiring decision.
Workplace authority John A. Challenger agrees that overall attitudes about body art have changed: “Employers’ anti-tattoo stance probably softened considerably during the labor shortage of the late 1990s,” says Challenger, chief executive officer of global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
He adds, “With everyone from soccer moms to MIT computer science graduates sporting tattoos, preconceptions about tattooed individuals are no longer valid. More importantly, companies have a vested interest in hiring the most qualified candidates.”
Challenger says that we may never see visible tattoos on bankers, lawyers, accountants, or the clergy, but career fields such as advertising, marketing, sales, and technology are more accepting of new fashion and lifestyle trends.
When your research of a company’s dress code is still thumbs down on tattoos and body piercings, cover up the ink and remove the bling — or pass on the interview. Maybe it’s not the place for you.
Oh pantyhose, oh pantyhose, wherefore art thou pantyhose?
If you think the issue of tats and bling on the interview stage is a touchy subject, reflect on the issue of bare-legged ladies.
Opinions on both sides of the generational divide could start a new rumble in a Shakespearean tale of feuding noble families. Regardless of the weather or locale, younger women say that wearing pantyhose is silly, while their elders huff that not wearing pantyhose is tacky.
Professional presence guru Barbara Pachter makes two excellent points for women on how to handle the dilemma:
- When you wear pants or a pantsuit, your legs are not exposed, and the issue of whether to wear hose becomes moot.
- When your legs have blemishes, scars, or varicose veins (think ugly), pantyhose diminishes their unattractive appearance.
Advance dress code research before an interview gives you a leg up on the pantyhose predicament.
Selecting from the Basic Types of Interview Wardrobes
Both women and men should expect every nuance of their appearance to be noted and interpreted at a job interview. As Mark Twain supposedly said, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”
When you’re getting ready for the big days, choose your attire from these four basic fashion categories:
- Conservative: Examples of conservative dressing environments include banks, law offices, accounting firms, and management offices — especially in big corporations.
- Business casual: Business-casual environments and career fields include information technology, sales, government agencies, education, retail, real estate, engineering, small companies, and Internet firms. (Smart casual — a term sometimes interchangeably used with business casual — means a loosely defined but pulled-together informal look for both men and women.)
- Casual: Plain casual environments are those such as construction, trucking, maintenance, repair, landscaping, and other jobs where work clothes may end the day stained and sweaty.
- Creative fashion: Clothing worn in career fields such as entertainment, fashion, graphic design, interior design, popular music, and other arts.
A discussion of each category follows.
Conservative dressing means no surprises. Your look is traditional or restrained in style. You avoid showiness. You aren’t flamboyant. Conservative dressing means you not only wear the established team uniform, but you wear it well, from the tip of your white collar to the closed toe of your dark shoes.
For women, a conservative checklist includes the following:
- Suit: Wear a two-piece suit or a simple dress with a jacket. Good colors are navy blue, gray, dark green, dark red, burgundy, and black. Make sure your skirt length is a bit below the knee or not shorter than just above the knee.
In a dark color, a pantsuit is a tasteful choice. Accessorize it with a simple shell and silk scarf. Caveat: If your research shows you’re interviewing with a super-traditionalist, stick to skirts.
- Shirt: A white, off-white, or neutral-colored blouse is a safe choice.
- Shoes: Closed-toe pumps with low heels or midheels (21⁄2 to 31⁄2 inches) suggest that you’re work-minded.
- Accessories: Briefcases look more serious than purses, but a handsome leather purse is fine. Avoid distracting jewelry or watches.
- Makeup: Moderate makeup for daytime wear is appropriate. No looking like a Pamela Anderson stunt double.
- Hair: Simply styled hair looks contemporary; observe styles on TV anchors, for whom maintaining a professional image is essential.
For men, the following conservative checklist applies:
- Suit: Power-suit colors are navy or charcoal gray. (Black on men is seen as somber.) Tans and medium-tone colors work well if your research shows they’re included in the company’s color chart for team uniforms. Suits should be well tailored.
- Shirt: White is the first choice for shirts; blue is second. In either case, wear only long sleeves.
- Tie: Dark or low-key (blue, black, navy, blue, or gray) or power-red colors bring to mind executives. Geometric patterns are okay, but only if they’re minimal. Be sure your necktie knot is neat and centered on your neck; the bottom of the tie should just reach your belt. Skip the bowtie.
- Shoes: Wear lace-up shoes in the same color as your belt. Wear black shoes if your suit is gray or navy; wear dark brown shoes for tans or medium-tone colors — in both cases, choose polished and clean shoes that are in good condition, of course. Rubber-soled shoes are a bad match for a professional suit and tie, as are alligator shoes or sandals.
- Socks: Wear dark socks in midcalf length so no skin shows when you sit down.
- Accessories: Limit jewelry to a wristwatch and, if you wear them, cufflinks.
Cruising business casual
An increasing number of recruiters say that a business suit is too formal for an interview at their company. (Remember the true story earlier in this chapter with the punch line “When in Rome, wear a toga”?)
The interpretation of business casual varies too widely for universally accepted rules, but mainstream opinion nixes casual clothing you’d wear to a picnic or a ballgame, such as sweat suits, spandex, shorts, T-shirts with slogans or commercial logos, bare midriffs, halter tops, and tank tops.
For women, a business casual checklist includes the following:
- Clothing: Guidelines here are looser than for conservative dress. Sticking with the following points is a safe bet:
- A casual jacket or blazer with well-pressed trousers or a skirt is a top option.
- A jacketed tailored dress is a fine choice.
- Tailored knit sweaters and sweater sets are appropriate.
- A skirt that’s knee length, or longer paired with a blouse works well for support jobs.
- Avoid pastel overload (pink, baby blue); those colors work great for a nursery but not for your professional outfit.
- Provocative clothing (see-through tops, uncovered cleavage, second-skin pants, shimmering fabric, super-short skirts) isn’t your best look for offers at the top of the salary scale.
- Shoes: Shoes should look businesslike and be dark colored — no strappy shoes, sandals, or mile-high stilettos.
- Makeup: Avoid wearing heavy makeup — on you or on your collar line.
- Accessories: Leave flashy or distracting jewelry — dangly ding-a-ling earnings, clunky bracelets, giant spiky rings that bruise fingers when shaking hands — at home in your jewelry box. And avoid chipped nail polish, if you wear it.
For men, a business casual checklist includes the following:
- Clothing: Don a sport jacket or blazer, especially navy blue, black, or gray, with color-coordinated long trousers or pressed khakis. Shirts should have collars, be long sleeved, and stay tucked into pants; buttondown shirts are good but not mandatory.
- Shoes: Choose dress shoes and a matching belt; loafers are acceptable.
- Socks: Wear dark socks that are midcalf length.
- Ties: Choose simple (not too busy) ties for job interviews, unless you know from your research that a tie isn’t part of the uniform where you’re interviewing.
- Accessories: Limit jewelry to a conservative wristwatch.
Any interviewee, male or female, is better off steering clear of the following:
- Dark-tinted glasses, and sunglasses atop your head or hanging in front of your collar
- Electronic devices (even on vibrate mode — the buzzing sound is annoying)
- Joke watches or fad watches
This advice is so important that it bears repeating: Advance research is the only way to be on sure footing. You’re gambling if you assume that you know what business casual means in your interview setting — or even whether you should dress in business casual. When in doubt, scout it out.
Working in casual wear
True casual work attire is suitable for hands-on working men and women. Often a company uniform is required when you’re on the job, but when you’re in job interview mode, the main point to remember is to look neat and clean, with no holes or tears in your clothing. Colors and style don’t matter as much as they do in conservative and business casual interview dressing, but your overall appearance does.
Here’s a short checklist for both men and women:
- Clothing: Shirts or knit tops and well-pressed pants are appropriate. Avoid wrinkled or soiled clothing, and don’t wear T-shirts with writing on them.
- Shoes: Polished leather shoes or rubber-soled athletic shoes are fine. Just don’t embarrass yourself by waltzing in wearing grungy sneakers.
- Grooming: Make 100-percent sure your hair and fingernails are neat and clean.
Selecting creative fashion
Most job seekers interview in attire suggesting that they’re serious and centered in a business culture. But if you work in a creative environment, take fashion risks and go for artistry, design consciousness, innovation, trendiness, new styles, and, yes, even whimsy.
You’re probably way ahead of me and already follow high- and low-fashion statements online and in magazines like Vogue and Marie Claire, GQ and Details. You know what they say about fashion: in one year and out the other. So I don’t attempt to compile a checklist for either sex, because in a fashionforward office, everything would be outdated by the time the fifth edition of this book is published.
In offices where employees are encouraged to show originality, a reasonably creative look (not too far over the top) beats out conservative dress, and maybe business casual as well. It all depends on the company culture as seen through the hiring boss’s eyes.
Guessing at Tomorrow’s Styles
I share a few forecasts gleaned from America’s fashion observers:
- The era of the traditional suit is nearing an end.
- Business casual is becoming the new traditional dress in the workplace.
- Americans are moving toward a standard where there’s virtually no difference between what you wear during work and what you wear after hours.
These predictions hint at a developing new paradigm in how you costume yourself for a job interview and what you wear to work after you get the job.