Blog article on how to handle appearance in job interviews

Occasionally I work with clients who don’t want to do any interview skills practice. They’re more than happy to discuss the theory of how to answer well in an interview.

They’re often fascinated by First Impressions and how it affects the prospective employer’s decision-making.  They just are not confident enough to go through a mock interview.

This is such a pity because what a good career consultant offers is judgement

This struck home to me a few years ago.  A very intelligent person I was grilling for interviews gave me an extremely weak and damaging example of where he influenced a group of people to change.  Apart from any consideration about how well constructed or how interesting his answer was, it was pitched at totally the wrong level.  He was an Executive and his answer was more suited to something a Receptionist might say.

I was easily able to convince my client that he needed a stronger, more complex example.  He duly produced a totally different scenario and on we continued with our training. He trusted my judgement.

Now, learning a totally new technique to improve interview skills can be difficult and it is understandable that you may not want to make the effort.   However, altering the way you present yourself physically at the interview is not difficult. It can even be done on a budget, with great success.  Why then is it so often ignored? 

At some stage in our interview preparation work with clients, we often need to raise the issues of their appearance.  What a delicate matter! And how gently we tread.

I may not necessarily agree with the unwritten rules of society.  Nonetheless, it is not my role as a career specialist to change the world; it is my job to be aware of barriers to my clients’ future employment and help my clients to eliminate or mitigate against them.

Here are 10 tips to help you navigate the perils of appearance.

Peril #1: Odour

Just last month I met someone for coffee where the only seats available were next to the grill. The fumes from that place were quite overpowering and I knew when I walked out that everything about me, including my clothes reeked of a fatty, bacon smell.  There was nothing I could do about it.  Luckily, I didn’t have any appointments that day so it was only my fellow staff members who had to put up with the less-than-pleasant aroma that followed me most of the day.

It’s not enough to make sure that you perform your normal ablutions on the day of your interview; you also need to vet your clothes. Air them thoroughly the night before the interview.  Ensure that any food venue you visit on the day of your interview is not leaving its traces on your clothes.

Less likely to form part of your checking process are aftershave and perfume.  Aftershave in particular is both an acquired taste and very personal.  I banned my husband’s then choice when I first met him. It’s much safer to go perfume/aftershave free on the day as you have no idea whether your target market appreciates your choice.

Peril #2: Beards

There are beards and then there are beards.  I’m not a fan of the so-called ‘ironic’ beard but that’s personal taste, of course. It does instantly mark you as a hipster and this may be enough to make a conservative employer eliminate you from consideration. However, it’s so ubiquitous in the Western world that you are probably quite safe, generally, if you sport one.

It’s the unkempt beard that will typecast you out of the corporate market especially if you pair it with long straggly hair.  That combination is fatal. Make an appointment with your hairdresser and discuss what you can do to tame the beard in the short term.

Peril #3: Moustaches

The two culprits here are the hipster moustache and the military moustache.

In relation to the former, you might need to be careful.  Conservative consulting/accounting firms might well avoid hiring you if you turn up to an interview with an extreme version. For older workers, the old fashioned clipped moustache can kill you chances dead as it revives all the stereotypes of a ‘Dad’s Army’ Sergeant Major. It conveys an old-fashioned resistance to change, especially when paired with a close-cropped haircut. It’s probably time for that moustache to go.

Peril #4: Trousers under the armpits and short sleeved shirts

This look smacks of a middle-level public servant who will say no to all of the boss’ suggestions. It is to be avoided at all costs. Worse, of course, is a short sleeved shirt with a tie.  That’s a relic of the 50’s that deserves to stay there.

Men have access to the magic of a suit that acts as a type of coat of armour. Buy a modern, well cut one. You don’t need to spend a fortune. Discuss the tie/no tie issue with someone you trust as it is a bit of a moving feast at the moment. If in doubt, wear a modern stylish tie. Make sure it’s this year’s tie.

Peril #5: Dangling Security Cards

I was on an interview panel recently for an Executive role and the applicant turned up in a smart suit with a security card dangling from his neck.  It moved constantly throughout the interview and it distracted me.  I kept wondering why he hadn’t just taken it off and put it in his pocket before the interview.  A very small matter, but one that could have been avoided.

Peril #6: Boring fussy female attire

I used to prepare Year 12 students for interviews to get into Medicine at University.  Many of the young women looked quite frail and very gentle.  I focused on them wearing plain, well cut strong-looking clothes that were slightly edgy. This allowed them to convey strength to counter-balance their soft voices.

Make sure that you meet the expectations of your market place. One of my younger clients in the marketing field wore the most amazing clothes!  Our whole office would exclaim at the wonderful flair she showed.  However, unless you’re a natural like Linda, stick with clean lines.  Choose at least one element in your outfit to stand out but seek advice as to whether your statement actually works.

Peril #7: Ill-fitting and ill-matched outfits

The number of professional women who make mistakes with their interview outfits astounds me. An outfit consisting of non-matching skirt and jacket in different shades of black, for example, does not convey any impression of strength. It just looks sloppy and dowdy.

Imitate your male colleagues here and go for the suit.  It gives you instant gravitas and authority.  Once again, aim for a stylish, well-cut outfit.

Peril #8: No makeup

Some women have a philosophical objection to makeup and it’s usually quite clear from their appearance.  In this instance, of course, I never suggest that they apply any. There are other clients who tell me that they are allergic to makeup and can’t wear it.  Again, nothing to do here.  However, I do regret it. It does make it that little bit harder for them to win their next job.

Should you choose to wear makeup, check the ‘look’ of those women who are operating successfully in your field.  If you are after a promotion, you should be checking the appearance of those more senior than you.  The general recommendation is to apply it with a light hand.  And, be careful with your hands: claw-like nails with garish nail polish should be avoided. 

Peril #9: Boring shirt and tie

How do you know if your shirt or tie is boring?  I have enough trouble keeping up with women’s fashion let alone men’s so I steer clear of offering much advice here.

I recommend that you head over to the suits section of your local clothes store and consult the experts.  Go during the week when it’s quiet.  Tell the assistant that you are attending a job interview and that you are after a shirt / suit that is ‘sharp’.  They’ll know exactly what will work for you.

Peril #10: Male haircuts

I don’t really understand why slightly too long hair on older men doesn’t work but it just doesn’t.  Perhaps it makes them look old-fashioned, as if they are going to slip on their bib and braces when they get home.  

Make sure that you cut your hair before an interview.  Again, tell your hairdresser that you have a job interview.  They’ll know what to do. 

Don’t judge a Book by it’s Cover…

Philosophically, I often object to the judgemental attitude that is behind First Impressions and do my best to ignore them.  I was shocked a few years ago to watch a science show which asserted that our initial responses to strangers were not just hard-wired, they were generally correct. Whether this is true or not, it is a reality that we all face. It’s ok to miss out on a job because it’s not right for you.  Don’t miss out on one because you ignored the norms of your society. ‘Smarten yourself up’, as my mother used to say.

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