Business Schools

You Can't Wear That to an Interview!


Or can you? In a changing employment world, some job-hunt truisms are becoming old-fashioned myth

The most feared fashion-related interview nightmare of all came true for Indiana University senior Vladimir Kroshinsky. Halfway through his interview for an internship at a mortgage lender, he noticed his fly was unzipped.

MEN'S FASHION SLIDESHOW >>

What might seem like common sense—including checking your zipper before leaving the house—is sometimes overlooked by undergraduates venturing into the working world for the first time. Caught up with their overall appearance or the anticipation of an interview, candidates can forget about seemingly insignificant elements that might dissuade a recruiter.

WOMEN'S FASHION SLIDESHOW >>

And it's not just zippers. "Students think they can wear scuffed-up shoes. Or in an informal setting, men think they can get away with no belt," says David Wilmes, manager of undergraduate student programming at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Luckily, those types of mistakes—white athletic socks, a wrinkled shirt, dirty pants, or, in the case of Kroshinsky, an unzipped fly—are easy to fix. Deciphering a company's culture when it comes to appropriate dress for a job seeker is a little harder.

CONSERVATIVE LOOKS.

"If you show up at a career fair with a purple suit, you're probably not right for public accounting," says Blane Ruschack, national director of campus recruiting for KPMG, the Big Four accounting firm. (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/13/06, "Accounting with Major Mobility").

Still, with all the changes in the workplace—telecommuting, flex time, the prevalence of startups that are hiring scads of so-called Millennials—it's becoming harder all the time to decipher what a recruiter expects from a job candidate. Indeed, a lot of what you might hear and read about the "right" interview look is rapidly becoming myth, not fact. So do a little research before you head out for that job interview.

For instance, KPMG and other conservative institutions still want to see a suit and tie for men and a skirt or pants suit for women—but not in a far-out color. For men, it's best to stick with navy blue, black, or gray, and for women, any dark color will suffice. To add personal style, guys can choose a suit in a modern cut with a pinstripe, a tie with a slight pattern that isn't overwhelming, and a fine pair of leather shoes. Women can trade a traditional blouse for a dressy top in a neutral color, don an understated piece of jewelry, or wear a tan or brown suit instead of the typical navy blue or black.

FASHION FLEXIBLE.

Students going out for those types of jobs will probably also attend other "interview events"—"informal" drinks with a school alumnus, dinner with potential employers, or an on-campus meeting with a student mentor. As an alternative to a suit, a long-sleeved buttondown or polo and pants for men, and a shift dress or skirt and top for women, are usually good options, says Andrea Lui, associate public-relations manager for Old Navy (GPS). For a meeting with a peer, dressy jeans and a sweater/shirt for men and a blouse and belt for women are acceptable.

Some offices allow for a little more creativity, usually marketing, public relations, and retail. "Frequently, career centers will mandate that students wear suits and pantyhose and heels if you're a woman, or a suit and tie if you're a man. And we say, 'You know what? You don't have to wear a suit. Wear whatever you want.' We usually encourage students to dress for interviews in a manner that expresses their personal style," says Kate Aiken, senior director of college recruiting for the Gap.

Obviously, the saying "Always wear a suit" isn't 100% valid anymore. The bottom line for most companies is usually not whether you've paid $100 for your tie, or headed to the trendiest shop for your Louis Vuitton purse, it's whether you fit into the corporate culture and look the part. Of course, if looking the part involves showing fashion sense, then go out and spend, spend, spend. For others, just looking good—on your target company's terms—means you may be looking at a good job offer.

For some examples of interview fashion myths and a look at what's likely to go over well with recruiters during a job search, check out BusinessWeek.com's slide shows of interview fashions for men and women.

Gordon is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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