Ask a Career Coach: Is My Interview Outfit the Reason I'm Not Getting the Job?

Hi Kyle,

I’ve been out of work for over a year after being laid off from my job of 19 years (oil and gas).

I’ve interviewed countless times, but I haven’t yet landed a job. I do my research, have insightful questions, come prepared, etc. I’m in finance/accounting and I’m at a senior/manager level. I have both an MBA and a BA in accounting.

I feel I’ve conquered the nerves and preparation aspects of interviewing, but I’m a little stuck on what makes for an appropriate appearance for an interview.

I always dress in a conservative black suit with heels, and I wear my long hair down. I’m conservative in my makeup and always neatly dressed.

I wonder sometimes if I’m doing something wrong that is relaying incompetence or a judgment in my ability based on appearance. Can you offer any insight on this?

Signed,
Outfit Deal-Breaker?

Hi Outfit Deal-Breaker?,

I like that you’ve used the phrase “appropriate appearance” because it’s an excellent way to frame this topic. Of course, it’s common sense to show up in attire that’s suitable and appropriate, but let’s really break down what that means.

First of all, an interviewer doesn’t want to be caught off guard by how you present yourself in that first meeting. What would catch someone off guard? A sweater covered in dog hair, mismatched shoes, a crop top. Oh, and hair that looks like it hasn’t been washed in weeks.

Unless it’s a super laid-back environment, you probably don’t want to distract them with large tattoos or lots of piercings. (So if you have them, try to cover them up or take out the piercings.) Beyond that, know that you’re not getting graded on your appearance, and they don’t care about fancy labels or brand-name bags. You simply need to pass the “Is this person dressed appropriately?” test.

Second things second, what you wear really depends on where you’re going. So before you decide on an outfit, research the company as thoroughly as possible. Is it a formal office, or does it lean more toward business casual? If you can glean intel on what current employees wear on a daily basis (from the website, LinkedIn profiles, Instagram office shots), you can use this information to your advantage.

It’s not prudent to assume that every accounting firm follows the same dress code rule of thumb, so while your black suit may be fine for one organization, it might be deemed too stuffy by another.

Still, that being said, as long as you’re not dressed sloppily (ahem, inappropriately), it’s highly unlikely that your choice of attire is painting you as incompetent. Most hiring managers will understand if you arrive a bit over-dressed, particularly if you demonstrate just how qualified you are for the role.

Bottom line: Don’t overthink it. Your efforts and energy are best put to use preparing to answer any question that’s thrown your way (and coming up with your own queries when prompted, too). To that end, your best bet is avoiding clothing that’ll make you the slightest bit uncomfortable. No tugging, pulling, or freaking out that you’re a wrinkled mess by the time you arrive.

Use your best judgment and dress in a manner that makes you feel confident. Because when you feel confident, you’ll project this in all that you say and do in the interview, and your competence should be more than apparent.

Photo of person at job interview courtesy of sturti/Getty Images.

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