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Dress to Impress, Not Stress, the Hiring Manager

A job candidate might want to rethink that Goth look when going to an interview, to reconsider appearing as Mr. Monopoly when pursuing a job in the financial sector or to forgo the bathing suit and beach bag even if it is a scorcher of a day.

It’s the difference between being remembered for the right reasons—job qualifications, knowledge, people skills—and being remembered as the person whose painted-on “toupee” started running down his face.

OfficeTeam surveyed 670 HR managers at companies with 20 or more employees in the United States and Canada about the strangest interview outfits they had seen or heard of. Among the responses:

  • A cat suit.
  • A leather vest with no shirt.
  • Pajamas and slippers.
  • A blanket worn as a shawl.
  • Bright yellow shoes.
  • A Star Trek T-shirt.
  • A skirt made of plastic.
  • Dressing as a Goth.
  • Wearing the uniform from a former employer.

Dianne Shaddock Austin recalls the applicant for a staff assistant position who strolled in wearing a spaghetti-strap tank top and swimsuit skirt over her mid-thigh-high bathing suit. A beach bag and flip flops completed the ensemble.

“She explained that she had spent the morning at the beach because it was so hot,” said Austin, who was an HR generalist at the time. “She didn’t seem the least bit fazed or apologetic about the fact that she was dressed so casually. She never made it past that first interview.”

Then there was the candidate for a job at a New York City publishing firm who wore a sequined party dress with a deeply plunging neckline.

She was on time for the 8 a.m. interview but quickly explained she had been out clubbing and hadn’t had time to go home and change, said Linda Konstan, head of HR at the firm at the time.

She didn’t get the job, but at least she remained clothed during the interview.

Richard O’Malley recalled the woman who applied for a job as “party motivator”—a trained dancer who encourages people to get on the dance floor at events such as high-end bar mitzvahs.

The ads that ran in the college newspapers and online bulletin boards sought “outgoing personalities” with “previous dance experience” and that “party experience was a +++,” explained O’Malley, who at the time was the production and staffing director for events staged by a large entertainment company.

“A gorgeous young woman shows up in a pretty but somewhat revealing short summer wrap dress—very stylish and not inappropriate for a dancer interview,” he told SHRM Online.

“What was surprising—to me and my female assistant—was that when asked what assets would she bring to my organization, she stood up, pulled a string at her hip and stood before us completely naked except for a pair of stunning strappy heels.

“Apparently she thought ‘dancer’ was code for ‘stripper/escort’ and was disappointed when we told her this was a job actually dancing with people.”

Be Tactical in Your Choice of Attire

Sometimes an applicant overdresses in an attempt to make a good impression.

Job Search Advisor Lavie Margolin with Lion Cub Job Search recalled the man she referred for a position as a meat slicer at a delicatessen.

“In order to make the best professional impression, he decided to wear a three-piece suit, brand new tie and his snazziest shoes,” Margolin told SHRM Online. “The deli owner contacted me immediately, as he did not think this person was willing to get his hands dirty in the job.

“Sometimes,” she pointed out, “the right outfit can be perfect for one interview but horrible for another.”

Margolin explained that the man was trying to dress to impress and that she thought he could cut it. However, the applicant decided that the job was not for him.

Job candidates need to consider carefully what they will wear to an interview, said Bettina Seidman of New York City-based Seidbet Associates, whose services include career counseling and performance coaching.

“Wearing attire of a designer or manufacturer where you’re interviewing can be very tactical. However, when a client shows up in a T-shirt and jeans in advance of interviewing with a software development company, I remind them that although employees dress that way, you haven’t been hired yet, and when interviewing you have to impress the recruiter.

“Another mistake that candidates make is dressing too far above the position,” she said, noting that it’s not smart to wear a very expensive suit, tie and shoes if interviewing for a junior professional position.

Margolin conducts a boot camp interview session with clients and has seen the gamut. When a client walks in wearing sandals, even during the summer, she makes it clear that footwear choice counts, even in practice sessions.

Shoes on men and women are very important. Low heels for women and always shined. Cap toe or wing tips for men and always shined.”

Tell that to the recent college graduate who walked into an interview at a boutique financial firm in Boston wearing a suit and house slippers.

“He didn’t explain why he wore them, and I was a bit too shocked to even ask,” the firm’s recruiting director, Aljolynn Sperber, said of the young man applying for the paid intern position. “He ended up getting the job because he had the qualifications we were looking for, but we made sure to underline the dress code when he was hired.”

Then there was the candidate for a finance position who dressed as Monopoly icon, Rich Uncle Pennybags, wearing the figure’s makeup and top hat.

“I gave him an A for effort,” Wayne Weiner told SHRM Online, “but did not offer him the job.”

Project Professionalism

It’s easy to make subtle mistakes when selecting interview attire, OfficeTeam Executive Director Robert Hosking said in a news release, especially for those new to the job hunt.

“Ultimately, you want to project professionalism and confidence and ensure your outfit isn’t distracting or causing employers to question your judgment.”

OfficeTeam offers the following do’s and don’ts for interview attire:

  • Do not show up in wrinkled, stained or torn clothing. Assess your appearance from head to toe before leaving for the interview.
  • Do not over-accessorize. Choose simple jewelry and be subtle with makeup, perfume or cologne.
  • Do not assume you can “dress down” for an interview, even if a company has a very casual atmosphere. Err on the conservative side and wear a suit or blazer.
  • Do not wear anything that is uncomfortable. Have a dress rehearsal to ensure that the interview outfit fits well and instills a feeling of confidence.

And if any part of the interview outfit is new, a dress rehearsal will bring attention to any tags that remain on the clothing. Al Drucker, a recruiter for the Internal Revenue Service, recalled a young man who came to an interview in a new suit but had forgotten to remove the label from the jacket sleeve.

“The three interviewers, including myself, all noticed it at the same time when he lifted his arm to make a point. It did not detract from the interview, although he was not selected for the position.

“Nevertheless,” Drucker said, “we all remember him and his great effort at making his appearance as nice as possible.”

Dress for the Current Century

It’s also good to keep up with the times.

Executive recruiter and certified image consultant Lizandra Vega recently interviewed a woman applying for the position of personal assistant to a senior-level executive. The candidate looked like she had stepped out of the 1960s—or an episode of “Mad Men”—with her Jackie Kennedy pillbox hat, shift dress over a white button-down blouse, teased hair coiffed into a “That Girl” flip, a fitted swing coat, Mary Jane shoes and little white gloves she wore during the entire interview. Cat-eye-shaped glasses topped off the look.

“Her mannerisms and her choice of expressions were all very [antiquated],” recalled Vega, author of The Image of Success: Make a Great Impression and Land the Job You Want (AMACOM Books, 2010).

“Judging from her resume, she must have been in her early 20s in the 1960s. It was as if she had been frozen in time and had not interacted with anyone other than her dog.”

Still, Vega sent her to the client because the woman had worked for someone very senior who was retiring. The woman didn’t get the job, Vega said, because the client thought she seemed sheltered and not thick-skinned enough “to multitask and thrive in their environment.”

Women typically are advised to tone down their makeup when prepping for an interview, but no one thinks to remind men to back away from the hair-in-a-can.

Bruce A. Hurwitz, Ph.D., an executive recruiter and career counselor in New York City, found the perfect candidate for the job of property manager for a Class-A office building. The man had been responsible for a 1.5 million-square-foot building for about 10 years. The building had been purchased four times, and every owner wanted him to stay. He was always part of the deal.

“It was summer. He walked into the office—bald like me—and the top of his head was covered in paint,” recalled Hurwitz. “It was all I could do to keep from laughing, [and] my colleagues were of no help.”

Hurwitz escorted the man into a meeting room intending to give him the brush off.

“It turned out that he was brilliant. We spoke for over half an hour. He was exceedingly knowledgeable, professional, articulate and everything else I look for in a candidate.

“The problem was the paint.”

It was summer. The room was warm. The man was perspiring. The paint on the man’s head started to run. It was like something out of a “Seinfeld” episode involving George Costanza.

Hurwitz covered his laugh with a cough.

“I wanted to submit him but I couldn’t and I told him why. I told him that he was highly qualified, interviewed very well, was perfect for the job, and that there was no way I could submit him.”

It’s because of your hair, Hurwitz said, trying to be diplomatic in his word choice.

“You mean my toupee?” the man said with a straight face, referring to his painted-on hair.

“I said, ‘Yes, your toupee.’ I then told him that he did not need it. It did not speak well of him, that he was as good looking as I am and that the client would refer to him not as ‘the guy from the 1.5 million-square-foot building’ but as ‘the guy with the hair.’

“I told him that if he promised to take it off—no need to say ‘wash’—I would submit him. He agreed and was not offended.”

Hurwitz immediately called the client, telling him he had the perfect candidate. Unfortunately, the client had just hired someone.

“It’s the nature of my business,” Hurwitz said philosophically.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at


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