Dear J.T. & Dale: Just a comment from a frustrated hiring manager...With all the discussion around interviewing etiquette and the best way to land a job, I still am amazed at the number of people who have no clue what professional attire means. Can you remind job-seekers what proper dress is? - Jeff
Dale: Let me start by explaining why appearances matter: We are emotional beings pretending to be rational. The stream of consciousness is only a small percentage of brain function - while our thoughts are meandering along, the rest of our brain is making judgments and reaching conclusions, especially about situations and people. Think of it as the brain's equivalent of the Secret Service. Your subconscious is constantly asking, about everyone you meet, Is this person one of us? Thus, in a job interview, even before you say a word, the interviewer is reaching pre-language conclusions. That's why it's so important to appear to belong, to look and act like an insider.
J.T.: You can learn a lot about belonging from studying a company's website. Every company gives a presence online that tells you the culture, including dress code: More-conservative companies design conservative websites, etc. This can help you decide whether you should be wearing a suit or khakis, heels or flats, a tie or a golf shirt.
Dale: Good point. The website will show photos of employees - idealized employees. (That reminds me of one business owner who showed me new photos of his company/employees, and when I asked about all the unfamiliar faces, he confessed that he'd hired actors, including several minority actors, to pretend to be working there. When I questioned his faux-diversity, the owner insisted that he wasn't trying to deceive, but rather, he truly wanted diversity. By making it seem that way, he hoped to get more minority applicants and thus make the idealized version become reality.)
J.T.: As for Jeff's request for a guide to proper dress, here's some quick advice:
1. When in doubt, leave it out. To ensure that the hiring manager is focused on you and not what you're wearing, keep your clothing neutral and basic, and avoid distractions (flashy jewelry, strong perfume, excessive makeup, over-the-top hairdos and so on).
2. It's a not a date; it's an interview. Ladies should avoid low-cut tops, short skirts, stilettos and anything too tight. Men also need to consider buttoning up the shirt and avoiding tight T-shirts and sports gear.
3. Do a fashion show for a trusted mentor. Run your interviewing outfit by someone you respect. This is true no matter your age, as even seasoned professionals need to make sure their look isn't dated or frumpy. Getting older doesn't mean you have the right to dress for maximum comfort or wear whatever I want.
Finally, remember the famous saying by Doris Day, People hear what they see.
Dale: Yes, your appearance is self-expression; and if you really want the job, here's what your self should be expressing: I belong.