Amy Gonzalez is in the midst of a most challenging process: interviewing for a job. A member of the Boston Teacher Residency program, the 30-year-old has spent several long weeks trying to land a position as a high school English teacher. So far, nothing. And though a recent job interview left her feeling confident, later that week she learned she'd been rejected.
"The principal informed me that it was just a matter of being one of many strong candidates," Gonzalez says.
Not long after, a friend gently suggested that, despite her work experience, maybe Gonzalez didn't look as professional as some of the other candidates. That conversation made the would-be teacher stop, think, and finally agree.
"I still wear clothes from Forever 21, which is embarrassing to admit," Gonzalez says, referring to the trendy clothing retailer favored by teens and college students. "I know I have to present myself as a teacher and not like one of the students."
With the economy weak and more people hunting for work every day, job candidates are thinking beyond the usual resume and references and looking for any competitive edge they can get. And that includes updating how they look. But getting the right hairstyle, choosing the right interview outfit, even deciding whether to wear cologne on the big day can be a surprisingly tricky business.
Kelly McDermott, founder of Kelly, Etc., a local wardrobe and style consulting company, says the makeover business is booming right now with recent college grads and mid-career adults intent on rethinking their wardrobes and creating a clean, polished look.
"This economy has actually been a good problem for my company, because people realize that first impressions really do matter," McDermott says.
It shouldn't take sartorial genius to find suitable interview outfit, yet countless job seekers need guidance. Beth Gilfeather, president and CEO of locally based Stride & Associates, is a tech field recruiter and maintains a blog where she dishes out advice for job seekers. On the site, candidateadvantage.com, one entry provides helpful tips on dressing for success as well as the dos and don'ts of selecting appropriate interview attire.
"It's amazing to me what some candidates will choose to wear to an interview," explains Gilfeather. "We have a lot of people that are brilliant at what they do, but they just don't know any better when it comes to style."
Increasingly, they need to. With people changing jobs frequently (a 2006 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey said the youngest baby boomers held an average of 10.5 jobs from ages 18-40), not only do they have to keep their business skills honed, but they need to keep their look and style current as well. Image consultants say job seekers must consider the type of industry they're interviewing for and follow what is often an unspoken code for how to dress.
"The idea is to try to mirror and match your prospective company," McDermott says. "So, for more conservative professions such as banking or law firms, keep it classic, well-tailored, and conservative. For advertising or high-tech companies, you can look a little bit more creative, but still keep it appropriate."
And don't let a "summer casual" dress code fool you. Just because company employees wear slacks and polo shirts during the summer doesn't mean job candidates should adopt that look when interviewing.
"A lot of companies - financial, legal, construction - go business casual during the summer, and it's important to go a step beyond that when you're interviewing," said Ben Hux, director of legal recruiting for Management Recruiters - The Boston Group. "Dressing more conservative is always your best bet."
Just as important? Skipping the fragrance. The scent might not bother you, but it may annoy your prospective employer - or worse.
"We've had interviews stopped because the interviewer had an allergic reaction" to a candidate's perfume, Hex says. "You never know."
When considering what to wear for an interview, sometimes the best idea is to ditch an old look entirely and start fresh. James Restivo, 28, a occupational payroll specialist living in Boston, is thinking about law school. But before he makes the leap, he'd like to try and land a job at a firm, to get a feel for the profession. He thinks a new look might help him reinvent himself.
"I've been getting by at my current job with the same general outfit and have fallen into a rut with what I wear," concedes Restivo, who typically favors casual pants and a button down. "I need newer clothes."
Just as some candidates may have to spice it up or clean it up, others have to tone it down to land the job they want. Holly Wolk, director of recruiting and training for development and alumni relations at Boston University, is definitely not looking for potential hires to translate their personal style into their work wardrobe.
Fashionistas beware: If you want a job in higher education, she says, leave the pink Dior pumps at home.
"I'm not looking for the cute Carrie Bradshaw look," explains Wolk, "that doesn't work here. The term I use is always buttoned up. It's not about fashion, or personal style. When you're too fashionable, it distracts from your professionalism. When people come in a simple suit I remember and connect more with what they said, which is the important part."
While job changers who've been in one industry for years may face their own fashion challenges, Wolk finds that recent college grads often fall prey to the biggest faux pas when it comes to their appearance in job interviews.
"The Y generation, you see a lot of casual, sloppy dressers, or they wear clothes that they would wear to the club," she says. "Because of shows like 'Sex and the City,' they think that it's appropriate to wear these things to interview and have no sense of professionalism."
Wolk explains that her team often works with potential donors to the university, and anything that is "too fashion-y," can distract from the job. "Higher education is not a fashion runway - it's a professional atmosphere."
That's good advice for Emily Nixon, 24, who works in the financial industry. Nixon, an accountant, is looking to transition into a job that allows for more client interaction and thinks that toning down her trendy, too youthful look will help her make the move.
"I consider myself to be rather preppy and thought my look could be updated to be more sleek and sophisticated," says Nixon. "Fashion plays such a large role in how we conduct ourselves and how others perceive us in life, not only in the workplace. Having a look that matches your personality while remaining professional is extremely important."
The take away message? Don't wear anything that could compromise your chance of landing the job you want.
"The last thing you want is your appearance to keep you from getting a job," Hux said. "You want it to be a non-issue."