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Deciphering Dress Code for Job Interviews

Dressing correctly won't get you the job, but dressing incorrectly can lose you the job. At the interview stage dressing correctly matters for two reasons:

1. You want to create a favorable first impression and look like you belong at the organization.

2. You want to avoid making a mistake that knocks you out of consideration.

Office dress codes were simpler years ago. Work outfits were "white collar" or "blue collar" (or a uniform) and everyone knew what was meant. Nowadays it's not so easy. Standard advice about playing it safe no longer applies. The old rule of thumb was to dress conservatively in business attire and you can't go wrong; I'll give you an example where that approach costs candidates the job:

Example #1 --- Technology Company where the clothes = culture fit
My staffing firm does work for a very desirable technology company. The company's environment and dress code are casual. We noticed a trend where candidates who were dressed in business attire (or even business casual attire) were rejected as "not a culture fit." 
Many of these candidates were otherwise highly qualified. If you asked the hiring managers about the importance of attire on interviews they would say something like, "I don't care how they dress, lots of people think they need to dress up for interviews, I look past it and look at their skills." While the hiring managers said they didn't care about attire, it seems that their subconscious took over and in fact attire did matter.

Example #2 --- Investment Management Firm with a traditional view on how employees should dress
I'll give a different example where the old rule of thumb does apply. The company is a very desirable financial firm. Candidates in the industry dream of working here. Their selection process reminds me of how I imagine admissions might work at Harvard or Yale. Tey have so many applicants that even flawless applicants get rejected simply because they don't have enough slots for all the flawless applicants. The company dress code is traditional business attire. If candidates show up for an interview in anything but true traditional business attire, they are likely to be rejected simply because there is an equally outstanding candidate who did not make this mistake.

Preparing for an interview

  • Ask about the dress code during the phone interview. An experienced HR professional or hiring manager should tell you the information without being asked. But you don't want to take any chance, ask the question before you come in for an in-person interview. 
  • Get some real world perspective. If you know someone who works in the industry, you certainly should speak with them about proper attire and about many other topics that are beyond the scope of this article. If you don't know anyone, work your LinkedIn connections, chances are you can work your way to someone who can give perspective.
  • I knew a candidate who really, really wanted the job, so the day before the interview she waited in front of the building lobby and observed how people were dressed. Extreme? Maybe, my point is you should work hard to get information on how you should dress because it does matter. 
  • Deciding how to dress in creative environments can be particularly stressful as you may need to look hip. You may need to take more chances in such a situation. Nonetheless, following these steps and seeking to get up front information can only help.

If you're stuck interpreting the dress code on your own, below are some general guidelines. Again, it is better if you can get specific information on the organization where you are interviewing; if you can't, the following guidelines should help keep you out of trouble.

Business Attire - For the most conservative work environments, appropriate attire is as follows:

  • [For Men]: Navy suit, white dress shirt, black shoes, black belt, and a conservative tie with a simple pattern.
  • [For Women]: Black skirt or pant suit, conservatively tailored blouse or shell, closed-toe shoes and pantyhose or stockings. Jewelry should be kept simple.

Business Casual - This is the most common dress-code you will encounter. The interpretation of business casual is the broadest and therefore riskiest for interviewers. You should work hard to get information on the organization's interpretation of business casual. In general, consider the following:
  • [For Men]: Appropriate outfits for interviewing include dress pants, a button-down dress shirt, dress shoes, and a blazer. If you think the company leans more toward casual and less toward business then skip the blazer.
  • [For Women]: Interview outfits can range from suits that are slightly less formal to trousers paired with a conservative and sweater or blouse, and closed-toe shoes. 

Casual - This is the most poorly interpreted dress code option. You want to dress a bit better than the existing workforce; you might stand out and look like you are there for an interview, this is perfect. If you don't have much information about the attire at the organization, I would recommend that you consider dressing at the low end of business casual for your interview.
  • If the workforce wears jeans, then it is acceptable to wear jeans on your interview. Pick a pair that are dark and new looking, not all washed out, and not bedazzled. 
  • Wear a collared shirt even if the workforce wears tee-shirts. Pick a polo shirt or casual button-down. 
  • Avoid sweats, short pants, cut-offs, and tank tops. 
  • Don't show a lot of skin like a bare midriff, or too much cleavage.
  • Avoid sneakers, sandals and flip-flops for your interview even if they are commonly worn by the workforce.

Aaron Green is founder and president of Boston-based Professional Staffing Group and PSG Global Solutions. He is also the chairman of the American Staffing Association?s Board of Directors. He can be reached at or (617) 250-1000.

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