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Put Your Best Self Forward During The Job Interview

How to win over the employer with style

19982229_sCongratulations, you got the job interview. You have your foot in the proverbial door. Now is your chance to impress them with you. Take a tip from the advertising industry: presentation is everything. When you walk in the door and shake the interviewer’s hand the first thing you will be judged on is your appearance.

So, what exactly should you wear? To answer that question, I spoke with three professional image consultants from across the country: Sherry Maysonave, president and founder, Empowerment Enterprises and author of Casual Power: How to Power Up Your Nonverbal Communication and Dress Down for Success; Susan M. Fignar, principal, Image Works Wonders; and Adele Riepe, president and CEO, Image Solutions. And, after speaking with each, I discovered that there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

Skirting the Issue

As I suspected, the experts agree that you can never go wrong with a classic-cut, dark suit. But is it acceptable to wear a pantsuit? Well, it depends on the industry and where you live.

In the New York City metropolitan area, my neck of the woods, things are more formal. “People expect you to put on your best for a job interview,” advises Riepe. “Women wearing pants to the office is a relatively new trend. So, for many men, and women, your best still means a suit with a skirt.”

Employers in the South agree, according Maysonave. “I’ve heard from several VPs and company CEOs that a woman in pants, even a nice pantsuit, is considered too casual for a job interview,” says Maysonave. She also recommends wearing long-sleeved tops and finishing your outfit with closed-toed heels and hose, even in the hottest weather.

On the flip side, Fignar notes that the West is very casual and the Mid-West is business casual to casual. “Unless they’re interviewing in a conservative industry, we tell our clients a tailored pantsuit is fine,” says Fignar. When in doubt, she suggests calling the human resources department and asking about the company’s environment.

The Industry

Conservative businesses, such as banking, legal and accounting, generally require a more formal approach. Advertising, public relations, sales, and other creative environments, generally have less stringent dress codes. New media and technology companies are known for a relaxed attitude, which may mean anything goes.

Even the most dressed-down employers, however, will expect you to be a bit formal during a job interview. If you’re moving into an unfamiliar industry, get advice from people who already work there. What if you don’t have access to insider information? “Unless you are specifically requested to come in business casual, wear a suit. If you are specifically told to come in business casual, wear a pant suit or pants with a complimentary jacket,” advised Riepe. “Always err on the site of formality.”

When it comes to a skirt, length is important. The consultants’ consensus: skirts should fall from one to two inches above or below the knee. Long, flowing skirts reduce your authority and mid-calf skirts tend to look dowdy.

Don’t forget to consider your overall image. Style your hair simply and wear minimal makeup. Be careful not to distract the interviewer with dangly jewelry, chipped nails or a run in your hose. “If the interviewer becomes distracted by your appearance, it takes away from what you are saying,” says Maysonave. “If you are not well groomed the interviewer may also start assuming things about you, for example, that you don’t pay attention to details. And don’t forget the hose.

So what’s the biggest wardrobe no-no? The unanimous reply: never wear anything that could be considered provocative. While some employers may enjoy the view, most will not take you seriously. Sexy-sandals, low-cut tops, slit skirts don’t belong at a job interview. Stay away from clothes that are tight, short, clingy or revealing. Before leaving the house, give your skirts the “sit-down test.” If your skirt rides up too high, it’s not a good choice for an interview.

Gender Bender?

So what about gender? Should a woman dress differently when being interviewed by a woman than when being interviewed by a man? Unable to pass on the opportunity to pick the brains of three professional image consultants, I asked for their opinions.

One school of thought is yes it makes a difference. The reason? Women wearing pants to the office is a relatively new phenomenon.
(I do remember working for several employers who didn’t allow women to wear pant to the office, even pant suits.) For this reason, some men and women still consider pantsuits too casual for an interview.

Another view is no, it doesn’t make a difference. Why? Because you never know who you will meet once you arrive. In many cases, if you’ve impressed the first interviewer, you will be invited to meet with other employees. All agreed, however, that you will never go wrong with a skirt suit.

Second Time Around

Be sure to scope out the company during your first visit. Are most of the employees casually or conservatively dressed? When preparing for the next interview, also take your cue from the employer. If the interviewer was conservatively dressed in a skirt suit, you should go back in a skirt suit. But wear something that shows a different style. For example, if you wore a suit with a longer jacket, next time wear one with a shorter jacket.

If the company has a business casual dress code, it’s ok for you to wear pants and add a little color. For example, if you wore a black suit for the first interview, for the second interview you might wear the black pants and black top with a red jacket. But that’s only if the company has a business casual dress code.

Final Thoughts

Planning your interview outfit is an important part of the job-search process. No matter what your experience, the first thing you will be judged on is your appearance.

“Employers are going to hire someone who looks like they are going to fit into their company’s environment,” says Fignar. “If you haven’t been shopping for awhile, you need to update your look. This is particularly true if you are interviewing in a younger technology company.”

Just in case you need one more reason: dressing well has a positive influence on your salary. “If you go to an interview too dressed down, you are not going to command a high salary. That’s a big component, advises Maysonave. “If you look like you need the job, you won’t get it. It’s like going to a bank; you won’t get a loan if you don’t look like you can pay it back. Don’t drape yourself with status symbols, but show that you like nice things.”

Finally, remember to put your best self forward with everyone at the company. Go in with a smile and be nice to everyone. You never know who’s standing next to you in the elevator or the ladies room. Good luck!


About Annette Richmond, MA

Annette Richmond, MA, CARW, CCELW, is a Certified Resume Writer, Certified LinkedIn Profile Writer, and former recruiter. Her career advice has been featured by Huffington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Forbes, Business Insider, Monster, Vault, and WSJ. She helps motivated, senior level professionals tell their unique career story. She also serves as executive editor of career-intelligence.com.


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