5 Unspoken Job Interview Rules About What You Should Wear

Experts say you don’t want your clothes to be more memorable than what you said in an interview.
What's professional for you may not be considered professional for the company you want to work for.
VioletaStoimenova via Getty Images
What's professional for you may not be considered professional for the company you want to work for.

What you say in a job interview should be more memorable than what you wore, but that isn’t always the case.

Gabrielle Woody, a university recruiter for the financial software company Intuit, said that wild clothing designs, too many accessories, extra straps or wrinkled clothes could all potentially distract interviewers from what candidates are saying.

To avoid this, it helps to wear something that aligns with your prospective employer’s idea of professionalism.

But what’s considered professional can vary widely, depending on if you work for a stuffy law firm or a relaxed tech startup, and if your potential workplace has had relaxed dress codes since the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the tech industry, for example, employers are generally flexible and do not mind what people wear, says Laura Hunting, CEO of Found By Inc, a talent agency and executive search firm specialising in design. “As long as the candidate feels comfortable and confident and avoids anything offensive [like a] shirt with an offensive picture or phrase, then you’re typically in the clear and it’s more about the content of the conversation,” she says.

To give job seekers more clarity into what they should be wearing to interviews, we asked a mix of job search experts to reveal what they consider the biggest unspoken rules about what you should wear to a job interview. Here’s what you need to know:

Rule #1: When in doubt about dress codes, look at social media photos or directly ask recruiters

Researching what staff members look like in photos during company hours can give you a sense of how you should dress for the interview.

“I work for a technology company and we are business-casual. I tell candidates to wear business casual and something they are comfortable in,” Woody says.

“If they are really stuck, then I advise them to check out our corporate careers page and social media where our employees are shown. This activity gives candidates a better idea of what is acceptable to wear. Clothing recommendations definitely vary by industry and company because some could be more formal and require a suit.”

Rule #2: Don’t wear pyjamas or sweatpants to a video interview, even if you think the interviewer can only see your upper half

Even if the interview is happening on a computer screen, try to dress as if the interview is happening physically in front of you. Match the upper half of your wardrobe to the bottom half – you never know what a hiring manager might see.

“If your interview is over video, you should still be thoughtful about your pants or skirt even if they are not going to be visible on camera,” advises Sarah Johnston, co-founder of Job Search Journey. “I heard a horror story from a client where they got interrupted during a video interview and had to stand up. They had on a nice top, but pyjama pants on the bottom. This really threw them off, and they were unable to recover.”

Ashley Watkins, a job search coach with corporate recruiting experience, said that she has seen some job-seekers shift to a more relaxed wardrobe as a result of the pandemic, but “this doesn’t give you pass to wear PJs or skip pants altogether because it’s a video interview,” she says.

“Be prepared for mishaps. If an emergency happens during your interview and you have to immediately run away, you don’t want your interview panel to catch a glimpse of your undies.”

Rule #3: Your clothes can signal how seriously you are taking the interview

If you dress too casually, you are going to invite assumptions that you are not super excited about the opportunity, even if you really do care about it.

“Anything too revealing or casual – T-shirts, crop tops, etc – could set the wrong tone and may come off as the candidate not being too serious about the opportunity,” says Jackie Cuevas, a nonprofit human resource administrator.

Anyelis Cordero, founder of Propel on Purpose Coaching, a career coaching service designed for first-generation professionals, finds that regardless of what industry you are vying for, you should dress to impress since humans can make snap judgments in the blink of an eye.

“How you physically show up matters and will be either consciously or subconsciously considered when they’re evaluating you as a candidate,” she says.

Rule #4: It’s better to be safe than sorry and err on the side of on dressing more professionally

Carmen Rosas, an estate planning attorney, says that she has noticed that the pandemic has definitely relaxed workplace dress codes, but she still believes it’s best to choose interview attire that is true to your personality while being safe for work – no cleavage-baring tops, short skirts, wrinkled shirts or pants that are too tight. “While you’re interviewing, it’s better to be safe than sorry,” she says.

“As a business owner who does all the hiring for my team, I’m always keeping in mind that my employees are my brand, and while I want individuals to be true to themselves, they are also representing my firm and my brand,” Rosas says. “Our wealthy clients don’t want their attorney’s team showing up in sweatpants, and they also don’t expect it. As you’re preparing for interviews, keep that in mind. ‘How can you dress according to the brand of the organisation or business you’re interviewing with?’”

Of course, buying new professional clothes can get expensive if you want to dress to impress. Jails To Jobs maintains a directory of organisations in different states that give away professional outfits to those who qualify, such as 100 Suits for 100 Men and Dress For Success.

Rule #5: If the dress code really bothers you, that’s a sign that this job may not be right for you

It’s important to remember that a job interview is a two-way street: a hiring manager gets to see if you are the right fit for their team, but you get to see if they are right for you, too. If your future team’s ideal uniform feels oppressive and constricting, that’s something to consider before accepting an offer.

“If you find that you have to ‘dress a part’ that doesn’t suit you, that likely isn’t the right company culture for you,” Cordero says. “My life partner used to work in banking and had to wear what he calls a ‘monkey suit’: [a] suit and tie. He hated that part of the job. He’s more of a jeans, T-shirt and blazer, sneakers type of guy. When he transitioned into the tech start-up world, he felt more comfortable and was able to show up authentically himself in all ways.”

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