We are human. As humans, we make the sense of sight a huge factor in our day to day lives. Of course we can get by without it, but for most job-seekers and hiring managers, it is the first sense triggered on any interview.
As humans, we also make mistakes. A lot of humans mistakenly think that if they have the skills, they will get the job. They look at the interview process as a very straightforward and causal relationship: matching skills = hired. Logical, right? Unfortunately, this could not be further from the truth. While the following may seem like common sense, I cannot express how many times throughout my career I have had to tell someone that they did not pass an interview they thought they aced due to making a simple mistake in their choice of dress.
Unless specifically told otherwise*, DRESS PROFESSIONALLY. This is absolutely one of the most important things you can do if you plan to be successful at an interview, as a hiring manager will see how you present yourself before the conversation even begins. If you appear unprofessional, you’ve already lost.
(*Please note that when I say “unless specifically told otherwise” above, I am referring to the rare cases where a company will inform you or your recruiter beforehand that they maintain a very casual environment and that you can dress “business casual” or, dare I say it, “casual” for the interview. This should be confirmed to death before the date of the interview, and to be honest I would recommend dressing professionally anyway unless you are specifically asked not to, or are otherwise told specifically that professional dress will be frowned upon. It is always a good idea and will always make a good first impression, so handle any “we’re business casual here, business casual is fine” interview situation with caution and care)
It is also extremely important to remember that “dress professionally” does not simply mean “wear a business suit/suit and tie.” Making a strong first impression requires some time and attention. Make sure your suit is clean and freshly pressed. Make sure it fits you properly (read: have it tailored, especially if you have not worn it in a while). Choose conservative colors. It’s all about how you present yourself. If you truly “dress professionally,” you will truly feel professional, and the hiring manager will see your confidence. It’s true. I dare you to prove me wrong.
What would you think of someone if they made their first impression on you wearing a suit that was obviously too small, or too large? Or wrinkled? One thing I have seen popping up in many job descriptions is the phrase, “Must be detail oriented.” Would you think that someone who shows up to the interview in ill-fitting, wrinkled or unclean clothing puts an emphasis on details? I wouldn’t.
Choosing conservative colors is less often an issue, but something that should be carefully considered nonetheless. In general, a black or navy blue suit with a crisp white shirt or blouse would be your best bet. For ties, choose a solid color or a simple stripe pattern. Avoid any colors or patterns that are too loud or busy. A good rule of thumb for ties: if it draws attention away from you and onto itself, it’s probably too much. Never, ever wear a bow tie to a job interview. You aren’t a ventriloquist’s dummy, and I have never heard of one being hired (by anyone other than a ventriloquist, that is).
Accessorize modestly. Avoid loud or ostentatious hairstyles and jewelery. Leave facial piercings (other than a reasonable number in your ears) at home. Cover up any visible tattoos. Be sure your shoes are clean and free of scuffs (preferably polished), and match their color (black shoes generally go with everything) to the rest of your outfit (and, if applicable, your belt). If your laces are frayed, get new ones. Sneakers, even shiny black ones, are a huge no-no.
Double and triple check all pieces of your garments for spots, stains, snags, tears, runs and holes. If you wear anti-perspirant (and you should), check your clothes for white lines.
Don’t forget collar stays!
Even with your personal presentation down to a science, knowing what to expect once you’re through the door is key. Fitting in to a company culture is crucial for long-term success. If your recruiter doesn’t mention anything specific about this, you should always make it a point to ask (if they don’t know, they can find out for you). If the feedback about the company culture doesn’t sound right to you, speak up as soon as possible. Do you really want to work somewhere where you don’t feel comfortable? If you coast through the process and decide on your third day on the job to act on what you knew in your heart before you even received the offer, everyone loses.
I’ll end with a true story: I once worked with a candidate who passed several rounds of in-person interviewing with a client. Candidate and client seemed to get along very well and the candidate had strong experience, but there were some members of senior management who were less than impressed by the candidate’s choice of a brown suit, yellow shirt and brown tie during the first in-person meeting. Although it sounds like an uncommon choice of colors on the candidate’s part, as his recruiter I felt just as much to blame when he ultimately did not get the job. I certainly learned my lesson, and what you can learn from this anecdote, as a candidate, is to make a habit of speaking up. Don’t be afraid to ask for details regarding what is expected of you, especially if you are working with a recruiter who tells you to “dress professionally” and leaves it at that.
If you follow the tips above and are diligent in asking your recruiter to get you as much detail as possible about the culture of the company you will be interviewing with, you will have all the weapons you need to break almost any hiring manager’s first line of defense.
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