Thursday, July 26, 2007

Casual or Casualty?

Here are answers to some of the commonly asked questions about what to wear to the interview:

In a Business-Casual World, How Do I Dress for an Interview?

Just a few years ago, everyone knew the answer to this question. The standard interview uniform was suit and tie for men, and a suit with a skirt for women. Anyone arriving at work in a new suit was presumed to be interviewing elsewhere that day. But now that workplace dress codes have relaxed, both men and women have more choices when it comes to interview attire.

Does That Mean the Uniform Is Out?

Not necessarily. It's still important to make a good impression. You just face more decisions about how to do that.

How Will I Decide What to Wear to the Interview?

Remember, each company has an individual culture and environment. Try to find out what the standard is for the company before the interview. When you schedule the interview, ask what would be appropriate. Or call the human resources department and ask what the company's dress code is. Sometimes an interviewer will tell you what to wear: "We don't dress up here, so a suit is not necessary." Some people actually go to the place where they will be interviewing and stand outside at lunchtime or after work to check out employees' clothes.

If Not a Suit, Then What?

A good rule of thumb is to wear something somewhat dressier than what the employees wear to work. Never wear jeans and a T-shirt, especially slogan T-shirts. A jacket is always a safe bet for men and women, with slacks or a skirt. Somehow a jacket seems to pull the outfit together and can cover a multitude of figure problems as well.

But the suit is still a staple in some professions. Salespeople, for example, prefer the suited look, as do other professionals such as lawyers and bankers. Whatever you decide to wear, make sure it fits properly and is of the best quality you can afford. What seems like a big investment now will pale in comparison when you get the job.

How About Women Wearing Pants or a Pantsuit to the Interview?

This question is still somewhat controversial. Some observers say women should always wear a skirt. But a recent issue of Biography magazine offers proof the rules are changing. A feature about first ladies shows several presidents' wives, dating back to the 1900s. All the women pictured are wearing skirts and dresses, until Hillary Clinton. Clinton is wearing her now-trademark pantsuit.

If you are interviewing at an Internet company or a bank, it's always best to keep your outfit on the conservative side. You're giving the interviewer a picture of yourself, so make sure it reflects well on you.

Dress for Success

You probably already know that appearance counts, but this is especially true at the job interview. Your interviewer will not only be judging your answers to his questions, but how you've put yourself together.

Check out these articles to create an overall look that says you're professional -- and hireable:

Dressing for the Interview, by Industry

There's no getting around it: In every job interview, you're going to be judged -- at least partially -- by how you look.

But how you should look varies depending on your industry and the job you're interviewing for. Take a look at general interview attire expectations for eight career areas:


"If you're applying for a technical position, you won't need a suit," says Carole Martin, a former Monster contributor and author of Boost Your Interview IQ. "A collared shirt and khakis or slacks would work. Same goes for women -- sweater or blouse and slacks or a skirt."

But upgrade your attire if you're interviewing for a higher-level job. "You dress in the best clothes you have," says David Perry, managing director for Ottawa, Canada-based high tech recruiting firm Perry-Martel International and author of Career Guide for the High-Tech Professional. "No exceptions."


"Nothing is more precise and exact than managing money," says Pamela Holland, chief operating officer for Brody Communications in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, and coauthor of Help! Was That a Career Limiting Move? "You cannot afford to have a hair out of place. Full business professional attire is required and expected."


At a government interview, "don't be flashy," Holland says. "This is a time to show you're responsible, trustworthy and honest."

But a bit of color is OK, whether you're a man or a woman, says Kathryn Troutman, Monster Federal Career Coach and author of Ten Steps to a Federal Job.

"Be conservative with jewelry, makeup and hairstyles," says Troutman. "Be conservative overall." But "the days of all white shirts for men in government need to end," she adds.

Human Resources

For an HR interview, "you must look professional and authoritative," Martin says. "You'll need the look that you could handle any crisis and be dependable."


Typically, a suit is the uniform for a sales interview. After all, stresses Martin, "who would want to buy from a guy in a T-shirt and jeans?"

But you might be able to go with bolder designs and colors, says Holland. "The product or service you're representing will determine how classic versus trendy/fashionable you should be," she explains.


"Here's an exception where a potential employer will understand if you have a little dirt or grease under your nails," says Holland. "You still want to look as neat as possible, but a suit is probably not necessary."

That is, unless you're interviewing at a high-end dealership, says Heidi Nelson, a personnel counselor for Car People Oregon, a Portland, Oregon, automotive staffing service for new-car dealerships. In that case, Nelson says, "I would dress up a bit more."


Image is particularly critical in the hospitality industry, says Martin. A suit is appropriate for some positions but not always a must. However, you always need to make a great initial impression.

"You're representing the company, and you may be the first person seen," she says.


John Coffey worked as a factory production manager for years before becoming a career coach. His take on appropriate attire for an interview in the trades: Business casual.

"For men, this might be a nice pair of Dockers and a buttoned shirt, along with well-kept and polished shoes," says Coffey, career success officer for Winning Careers in Woodbury, Minnesota. "The same goes for women -- nice slacks and a professional business top. I think a suit or sports jacket for this type of work is overkill."

Of course, one industry's excess is another industry's underdressed. So don't be afraid to ask, because no matter what, "your packaging counts," says Holland.

That packaging includes the little things. "The details matter," says Mary Lou Andre, president of Needham, Massachusetts-based Organization by Design and author of Ready to Wear: An Expert's Guide to Choosing and Using Your Wardrobe. For example, shoes "should be in excellent condition, as should totes and outerwear."

"You really never do get a second chance to make a good first impression," Andre stresses. "By investing some time and money in creating a suitable interview wardrobe, you will invite others to easily invest back in you."

Dress Appropriately for Interviews

What do I wear to the interview? It's a question millions of people agonize over on some level while looking for a job.

The bad news is that there are few cut-and-dried answers. As the saying goes, there's no accounting for taste, and each interviewer has his unique sense of what's appropriate interview attire. The good news? Deciding what to wear isn't as difficult as you might think.

Dress One or Two Levels Up

"The rule of thumb is that you dress one or two levels higher than the job that you're going for," explains Kate Wendleton, president and founder of the Five O'Clock Club, a national career counseling and outplacement firm. "If you were going for a job as a mechanic, you wouldn't go in there in dirty overalls, even though that's how you would dress for that kind of work. You would still go in there and show respect. You would go in with an open-collar shirt, clean pants and maybe a jacket."

As Wendleton puts it, by dressing a notch or two above what's standard apparel for the position you're interviewing for, "you're definitely showing that you care about this job, and that you know the game."

Caution Is The Better Part of Valor

When it's time to get dressed for the interview, remember: It's not so much that you're trying to get the job with what you wear, it's more a matter of not taking yourself out of contention with your presentation, Wendleton says. "Interviewers can decide in 10 seconds that they don't want you," she adds. "It will take them longer to decide they do want you." Chances are good that by dressing on the conservative side, you won't unintentionally disqualify yourself. But trying to demonstrate how hip you are with your exposed lower back tattoos or laid-back Juicy Couture outfit could backfire.

This Isn't 1999

Once upon a time during the dotcom heyday, recounts Wendelton, "people would come in with nose rings and sandals, and because there really was a severe labor shortage, they'd get hired."

She says that young, freshly minted grads often make the mistake these days of going too casual, perhaps confusing what once was with what now is. "These days, people are not desperate for you," she points out. "Recent grads tend to dress like they're students at interviews. Nobody forgives that. Not in this market."

Use Your Judgment

Is a suit always a must in an interview? Absolutely not. Michael Smith, who recently searched for a job in the Chicago area, went on an interview in the midst of a bitter cold snap in that region. "So instead of wearing a suit, I wore black slacks and a sweater," says Smith. "The sweater was large and cable-knit but very nice and high quality. The interviewer actually said to me that it was nice to see something other than a suit walk through his door. And a week later, I got the job."

So be sure to learn about an industry's fashion culture; some are obviously more casual than others. It's also usually fine to inquire about the dress code while setting up the interview. An Armani coat and tie or your nice Ann Taylor outfit may not be required if you discover the dress code is casual.

"But it's never fine to go in with a collarless shirt," warns Wendleton. And for men, she suggests putting on a jacket, even when not wearing a tie.

You Might Not Want to Be Too True to Yourself

There are those who say it's pointless to dress for an interview in a way that you wouldn't once you're on the job. Why misrepresent yourself to a future employer or try to be someone you're not?

"If you want to have eight earrings and have your tongue pierced, that's fine," says Wendleton. "But you're showing you don't know how to play the game. If it's so important to you, go ahead and dress like you normally do, but realize that you may not get the job."

Look the Part

Whether you're going to the bank for a loan or to the local auto shop for an oil change, you should look the part. While it's nice to think appearances don't matter, they usually do.

I'm not talking about dressing up or staying in fashion (although I highly suggest it), and this is not a diatribe on how casual Fridays and T-shirts represent the decline of Western civilization. I'm simply saying you are more likely to command respect and get what you want if you're dressed appropriately for your surroundings.

If I'm going to get my car serviced or buy tires, I don't wear a suit. I put on jeans, boots and a cap. I want to be taken seriously by the person with whom I'm dealing. I may be as knowledgeable as the mechanic, but he will make instant assumptions about me based upon my appearance. If I'm in a suit and look as though I don't even pump my own gas, how seriously will they take me? By the same token, if I'm going to the bank to talk with someone about a loan, I don't wear shorts and a cap.

Appearance Equals Message

This really hit home with me at one National Speakers Association Annual Convention. I was listening to a speech by one of the nation's leading sales experts. The audience was made up of sales trainers and sales consultants -- people who make their living teaching others how to make more sales, improve relationships with customers and present a professional image to customers.

Half the room seemed to fit the image of someone a major organization would hire to help their sales staff become more effective. They were dressed casually, yet professionally and tastefully. They were neat, well-groomed and reasonably fit.

The other half of the room was a different story. There were men in sweat suits, others wearing pants about to explode at the seams, and a handful of toupees that looked like they used to reside on forest animals. Now don't get me wrong. You won't find me on the cover of GQ anytime soon, but I try to appear tastefully current and professional.

Would I feel confident putting some of these people in front of my sales staff or clients as an example of what to do? Sadly, the answer is no -- regardless of the information and skills they offer. Many people would tune them out and question their credibility, because their appearance was inconsistent with their message of professionalism and success.

Maybe you've heard the saying, "Don't trust a skinny chef." You should look the part. Although looks and appearances aren't everything, first impressions can count for a lot. It's very difficult to overcome a poor first impression, regardless of your knowledge or expertise.

Smart Stuff to Remember

  • Appearances do matter.
  • Don't underestimate the power of a first impression. People make assumptions about you based upon your appearance at your first meeting.
  • You are more likely to receive better service, command more respect and get what you want if you are dressed and speak appropriately for your surroundings.
  • Your appearance should be consistent with your message.
Ten Interview Fashion Blunders What Not to Wear to the Interview

Any article about what to wear to an interview might well begin with a qualifying statement covering the extremes in various states (New York and California, for example) and industries (technology, manufacturing), which are possible exceptions to the normal rules of fashion. But it might surprise you to learn that those extremes have, over the last couple of years, begun to move closer to the middle ground.

Nowadays, if you were to ask 100 people their opinion about what to wear to an interview, the majority would answer, "Dress on the conservative side." With that in mind, here are some suggestions on how to avoid fashion blunders.

Anna Soo Wildermuth, an image consultant and past president of the Association of Image Consultants International, says, "Clothes should be a part of who you are and should not be noticed." She cites 10 dressing faux pas to avoid when interview time comes around:

  • Wild Nail Polish: This tip is for women or men. Extremely long or uncut nails are a real turnoff, too. Your nails should be groomed and neat.
  • Jewelry That Jangles: Don't wear more than two rings per hand or one earring per ear. And no face jewelry or ankle bracelets allowed.
  • Open-Toed or Backless Shoes: And mules are a definite no-no. Out-of-date shoes should be thrown out or kept for other occasions.
  • Bare Legs: Wear stockings, even in humid summer weather. Stockings can be in neutral colors or a fashion color to match your shoes.
  • Out-of-Date Suits: These have lapels that are too wide (three inches or more) or too narrow (one inch or less). A good tailor can alter lapels. The style for men's jackets is full-body and looser rather than fitted or tight.

  • Short Skirts: Hemlines should not be more than three inches above the knee. Don't wear capri pants or leggings to the interview.
  • Leather Jackets for Men or Women: Even leather blazers are not good for interviewing purposes. They look like outerwear.
  • Turtlenecks for Men: A tie is preferable, at least in the first go-round. At the very least, wear a collared shirt.

  • Printed or Trendy Handbags: Purses should be conservative and inconspicuous.
  • Red Briefcases: Briefcases, purses and shoes should all be conservative in color and in good condition.

Conservative colors in various shades of blue and gray are best. Wearing black to the interview could be viewed as too serious. If you do wear black, make sure that there is another color near your face to soften the look. Brown is still considered questionable as a business color and probably should be avoided. Change your outfit's look for a second interview by wearing a different color blouse, shirt, scarf or tie.

An interview is not the place to make a fashion statement, though those in the art fields and the very famous can be more adventurous. Everyone else should opt for a conservative look. "More and more companies are returning to traditional professional dress," says Wildermuth.

Whatever you wear should accent the fact that you're a professional who's ready to get to work at a new job. Let common sense guide you, and it should be easy to avoid fashion blunders that could damage your chances of getting to the next level in the process. In this market, it is essential that you look good and your appearance is right for the job.

So Beaware of it!!!

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