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Taking the Guesswork out of Dressing for an Interview

by Dana Lynch
“To suit or not to suit?” That is the question. It used to be a given, before business casual and casual dress codes came to be, that an interview always meant donning a suit. It’s not so simple anymore. Especially in the tech field, dressing for work sometimes practically means “come as you are.” So how do you know what you’re supposed to wear for an interview at a company with a casual corporate culture?

First, it’s crucial to find out everything you can about your potential employer before ever stepping foot into the interviewer’s office. This includes learning about preferred dress for interviews. In today’s tight job market, many of you are networking your tails off and have contacts within the company. Ask them! Find out what they wore for their interview. Find out about the normal interviewing protocol. Getting information on interview attire is just as important as any of your other research on the company.

It’s very important to be specific about finding out the preferred dress for interviews not just what the dress code is at the company. It would seem to make sense that if the dress code is business casual or casual that the hiring managers wouldn’t expect to see all candidates in suits. This is not always the case! An acquaintance of mine works for a company with a business casual to casual dress code, meaning he wears twill and canvas pants with various casual shirts on most days. Many times jeans are completely acceptable.  We were discussing this issue one day, and he told me he’d never consider not wearing a suit for an interview at his company. He added that it’s a matter of respect. At this particular company, a job candidate interviews with many different people within the department – a very popular interview method today. Often the interviews are with potential peers in addition to management.  All of these people know they wore suits when they interviewed and would take offense to a candidate who didn’t bother to wear a suit. The candidate would be seen unprepared and less than serious about the job.

A second example supports the importance of not making assumptions about interview attire.  A friend told me her husband had a job interview, and that he wasn’t completely sure what to wear. He felt comfortable in khaki pants and an oxford cloth shirt given what he knew about the culture and dress code of the company. I relayed the following tip, a tip I strongly urge any of you follow when you’re not 100% positive about the expected interview dress code. Contact Human Resources or even your interviewer in the absence of an HR department. Ask what the preferred dress for a job candidate is. You can’t go wrong with this advice. My friend’s husband found out the company prefers their job candidates in suits. (And he got the job!)

None of this is to say that you won’t get the job if you’re not wearing a suit and everyone else is. However, wearing that suit and having a great image gives you an edge when decisions are being made. Studies show that people start forming impressions of you within seconds of them first seeing you. Sometimes the decision to hire someone is made within the first 30 seconds of meeting them! In other words, your image speaks well before you ever get the chance to open your mouth. It even continues to speak while you’re speaking.  You may be thinking, “But I’m so qualified, and I’m so prepared, and I want this job. They can’t judge me be my looks alone!” Truly it’s not judging on your looks alone. It’s human nature to take in all of the visual cues that we see. Taking in non-verbal communication is simply a natural, psychological function that stems from a primitive part of the brain. When an interviewer first sees you, he or she can’t control what’s going on in the subconscious.

When two candidates with fairly equal qualifications are up for the same job, the one with the better appearance will usually win. In addition to all of the other non-verbal cues, a suit helps to communicate strong traits, such as authority, efficiency, and dependability. Taking the extra effort to put on a suit shows you will take the extra effort to do a great job for the company.

That said, it’s better to be overdressed that underdressed. Lately, I’ve been hearing the advice that you don’t want to be better dressed than your interviewer. Honestly, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. Certainly, you don’t want to be dressed audaciously, but unless your interviewer is a complete novice and is unskilled at interviewing, he or she should not take offense to you being well-dressed. Furthermore, being dressed in an attractive, appropriate manner is a sign of respect!

Please don’t get the idea that you can ride on your appearance alone. That suit and your great shoes and accessories alone will not get you the job! You’re a package. You need to make a tremendous effort with your preparation in both your interview appearance and your research on the company along with your dazzling qualifications.

Remember, your image is a tool that can help you achieve success. Do your homework, find out what interview attire is preferred, and when in doubt…don the suit!

Dana Lynch is the owner of Elements of Image, an image consulting firm specializing in teaching professional women how they can use the power of image to gain an edge in the workplace and achieve their goals. Elements of Image works with individuals and corporate groups. For more information, contact Dana at 303-463-4839 or visit http://www.elementsofimage.com.