Dress to impress at interview and always remember the context

Does how you are dressed at an interview really have any bearing on the likelihood of you landing the job?

It’s a question that has gained added currency since lockdown, when we all became used to attending business meetings on Zoom, dressed in pyjamas covered in stains from the previous night’s takeaway curry.

Prior to the pandemic, for many men the height of sartorial avant-garde was not wearing a tie with their suit. When every meeting became virtual, and we all saw the absurdity of dressing formally to sit at a laptop in our kitchens, we learned to let it all hang out – in some cases literally.

In the age of the millennial business leader – unless you’re a politician or you work in the City – it’s perfectly normal to arrive at a high level meeting where everyone is dressed in jeans and hoodies.

It no longer colours our perceptions of an organisation and its credibility if its leaders are not kitted out by catwalk designers or Savile Row tailors.

And yet somehow, we still feel the need to dress in a suit and polish our shoes when attending a job interview.

We do so, knowing full well that, if we land the position, we may well go in to the office on our first day of work dressed in flip-flops and an un-ironed Hawaii shirt. 

In a perfect world, we shouldn’t feel by what we wear at a job interview, but in the real world first impressions count and, if our clothing is all wrong, that may cloud our interviewers’ judgement of us.

You don’t have to spend a lot of money on your wardrobe but thinking about the role you’re applying for and dressing appropriately can make a huge difference to how you’re perceived.

Of course, it all depends on context. Few MedTech companies would expect you to wear a tailored suit to interview if, for example, you were applying for a wet chemistry role.

However, if you were going for a senior, client-facing position where you would be expected to represent the company among regulators, funders and potential customers, wearing a beanie hat and a Pearl Jam tour tee-shirt at interview isn’t going to cut it.

Common sense should prevail but that’s not always the case, demonstrated by this testimonial from a professional photographer, seeking to hire an office assistant. 

“We had a young woman come in and she sat down. She was wearing a skirt so short that I could tell you she had on clean underwear with little hearts. She had on way too much perfume and a blouse about one size too small for her pectorals. She was unfortunately a much better CV writer than she was in an interview.”

Then there was this software developer employer.

“I was the last interviewer of the day for a male candidate. He was dressed in the standard ‘male software engineer on an interview’ outfit: khakis and a short-sleeved shirt. I asked him a question such that he needed to go to the whiteboard. As he got up and turned, I could see that he had a large rip straight across the backside of his trousers, wide enough that I could see the tattoos on his buttocks”.

And what about this restaurateur, interviewing for waiting staff?

“One guy I interviewed came in about 10 minutes late, in pyjamas. The bottoms were Sponge-bob Square-pants and the top was Star Wars. We might have let that slide were it not for his hair which was about 12–14 inches long, and he looked like he’d laid it down on his pillow, then sprayed hairspray all over it. I asked him how his day was going, and he launched into a rant about how much he hated his bosses who had just fired him from McDonald’s.”

As a rule of thumb, there are a few simple rules. Follow these and you can’t go far wrong.

  • Keep bright, flashy colours to a minimum
  • Go Light on Perfume or aftershave
  • Leave Your Headphones at Home
  • Don’t be too casual even if the staff dress informally
  • Avoid Looking Too Dated
  • Don’t Overdo Your Makeup
  • Traditional Ties Make the Best Impression
  • Keep Accessories to a Minimum

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