First published in the Journal Inquirer Monday, Aug. 20, 2012
by Kristen J. Tsetsi

(I’m sharing this because a friend of mine recently asked on Facebook, “What should I wear to my interview?” “Do I wear pantyhose?” “What kind of skirt should I wear if I wear one?” She can’t possibly be the only one with interview-attire questions.)

You have about 30 seconds to make a good first impression, and this rarely matters more than when walking in the door for an interview with a potential employer.

What will the person on the other side of the desk think about you based solely on how you’ve chosen to dress for your interview? And how important is that first impression?

“First impressions are hard to change even if they’re inaccurate,” says Beverly Salzman, professor of psychology at the University of Phoenix and Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport.

Salzman, who has 25 years experience in nonprofit organization management and runs various nonprofit agencies in Fairfield County, has done her share of hiring.

She easily recalls a male applicant who arrived for an interview smelling strongly of body odor, and a female applicant who came to an interview at a women’s sexual assault center wearing a cocktail dress.

“I guess she’d been told to put on her best dress,” Salzman says.

But the best outfit for an interview doesn’t necessarily translate into your finest suit or your fanciest ensemble. Instead, “best” is the outfit most appropriate for the job.

Research into the company or the type of business will often lead to clues about how its employees are expected to dress, Salzman says.

Do an online search for Google employees, for example, and images pop up of the company’s staff wearing anything from T-shirts (adorned with the “Google” logo, of course) to button-up shirts, and casual pants from jeans to khakis.

Search for images of lawyers, and suits will be the standard attire.

Whatever the other employees wear, Salzman recommends dressing just one step up from that for the first interview.

“It lets the employer know that you know what the appropriate business attire is for that industry,” says Salzman, who adds that she once made the mistake of wearing a suit to an interview after being told she could wear jeans. When she arrived, she says, she was horribly over-dressed.

“It’s better to err on the side of dressing up, but wiser to know what’s expected of you. You really need to understand your industry to make sure you fit in perfectly.”

Fitting in is as important as not standing out — for anything but your skills, your experience, and your preparedness.

One way to be prepared is to plan out what you’ll wear as soon as you start sending resumes. It’s possible a phone call informing you of an interview could also be a phone call inviting you to come in the same day.

Also have a folder ready to go with everything in it. Even if you mailed in your resume, bring two copies, because the interviewer might not have one with him or her, and you’ll want to be able to follow along with your own copy if asked about certain positions or duties.

Also, because most applications ask for a list of past jobs and addresses as well as references, bring the information with you so you don’t have to mail it in to Human Resources later, Salzman says. Have everything with you that you could possibly need during an interview, including letters of reference — and a pen.

“A lot of people come prepared for the questions, but they don’t come prepared to fill out an application, so they didn’t bring a pen,” says Salzman.

After knowing what to bring comes knowing what to wear, and while casual dress can be fairly simple to figure out, “business attire” seems to leave some room for interpretation, particularly if you’re new to the work force or have been out of it for some time.

To help those entering, or re-entering, the workforce, Salzman, who will teach a class titled “Dress to Improve Your Interview” on Saturday, Nov. 17, at Manchester Community College, offers these tips based on her experience as the person sitting on the hiring side of the desk. One simple word serves as the guiding principle: conservative.

Business Attire

Business attire for men is a suit and tie. The suit should be a standard, subdued color, and not bright or flashy. Shoes, of course, should not be scuffed.

For women, business attire is slacks or a knee-length skirt, not too much jewelry, low heels (no 3-inch stilettos), and stockings, Salzman says. She acknowledges that younger people may find stockings “weird,” but explains there’s still a generation in the workforce that thinks they’re necessary.

For both men and women, there is some room for fun. Men can reveal their personality in the selection of their tie pattern, and women who, say, wear earrings, can select those they feel best represent who they are. Will it be silver studs? Pearls?

The key is to not select something that draws too much attention.

“You want the focus to be on what you know, what you can do for the company, and how you’re a perfect fit,” Salzman says.

Grooming

Stay away from strong scents like perfume and aftershave, Salzman warns. It’s difficult to know who will have allergies or who will truly dislike a particular aroma. “Freshly showered,” or soaped and shampooed, is usually a safe smell.

When it comes to hair, whether women wear theirs up or down doesn’t really matter as long as it’s neat and professional, Salzman says. If wearing it up, for example, a smooth, neat bun would be a better bet than the more casual, sloppier version.

Men’s hair should also be neat, with any facial hair freshly trimmed.

And if it’s stormy and windy the day of the interview, make a quick stop in the restroom to fix your hair before walking in to shake hands. It may seem silly, because surely windblown hair can be excused, but neatness is essential.

“If you don’t put your very best foot forward when you really want something,” Salzman says, anticipating the reaction of a potential employer to a sloppy applicant, “what will you do when you feel comfortable in that environment?”

Additional tips:

• Arrive early, but not too early, Salzman says. If there will be heavy traffic, allow enough time to make up for any potential delays. If you arrive with more than 15 minutes to spare, sit in the car or in a nearby establishment until it’s time to go inside, about 10 to 15 minutes prior to the scheduled interview.

• Treat everyone you encounter in the building with respect. “You don’t really know who the decision maker is or whose input will be sought,” Salzman cautions. “And if you want your phone calls to get through, you’d better be nice to all the helpers.”

• Take the first available interview. If offered the choice between the 8 a.m. interview, the noon interview, or the 3 p.m. interview, take the morning slot. “They’re very likely to remember the first person. The middle might get blurry. Sometimes in interviews, they’ve already made up their mind before the process is done,” Salzman says.

• If you aren’t able to buy new clothes for the interview, do the best with what you have, or ask friends if they’ll lend you something to wear. In lieu of friends and family, try to find an organization that provides business clothes for interviews. “Call the info line at 211 and ask what resources are available to help prepare you for a job,” Salzman says. “You’d be surprised what they’ll come up with.”

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About Kris Tsetsi

Kristen J. Tsetsi is the author of the novels "Pretty Much True..." and "The Year of Dan Palace" and the short fiction collection "20 Short Stories," all published under the name Chris Jane. Website: http://kristenjtsetsi.com

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