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‘Dress for success’ still counts for first impressions at interviews

‘Dress for success’ still counts for first impressions at interviews

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“Our company was recruiting for a couple of positions at a job fair recently and I was appalled at how casually some attendees were dressed — even to the point of T-shirts and shabby jeans. I was brought up to think that you dressed up to go to an interview or job fair. We pride ourselves on providing a casual workplace but gee, don’t people want to make a good impression when they’re looking for jobs? Maybe I’m old school, but my instinct is to just dismiss people who show up in shorts or a T-shirt. What do you think? Am I wrong?”

Yes, indeed, in the old days, normal job fair attire was business “formal,” and that meant matching business suits, in dark colors, including jackets, ties, dress slacks and skirts.  Everyone understood that was the norm and yes, people were horrified at anything that deviated from that norm.

So it’s entirely understandable if you feel like sending away any candidates who don’t meet the old standards.

But times have changed and when it comes to interview attire, there are no longer any absolutes. Today, if you stop at a job fair, you might see people in any kind of attire from dress shirts and slacks to T-shirts, jeans and shorts. And these changes have extended to dress codes at workplaces. The New York Times recently reported that “crop tops,” for example, have gained popularity at work.

“The traditional office dress code has long been over,” wrote Gina Cherelus in a recent New York Times piece on the popularity of “crop tops” at work. “Visible tattoos are acceptable and blue jeans and sneakers have become the norm in many workplace settings. Even rigid banking firms like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase have eased up in recent years to embrace casual fashion.”

With the change in wardrobes that came with the pandemic, the debates around getting workers back to the office and rising costs, “the next evolution in our workplace wardrobes might just be the freeing of the midriff.”

Are we really talking about bare midriffs and work clothes at the same time? So, what should job seekers wear to a job fair? What do employers want to see in applicants and candidates? And then there are lots of deeper questions. Do dress codes have any meaning today? How much should clothing really matter when you’re recruiting and evaluating candidates today? Do you really want to dismiss applicants who show up to your table casually dressed? Or give them a second look despite your misgivings?

The reevaluation of dress codes for interviewing has been going on for a while. A student told Forbes in 2019 that he didn’t think clothes made any difference at all. “Clothes don’t matter anymore. You can go casual, especially for tech jobs. You can wear what you wear to work any day.”

Not really, experts say, because it all comes down to impressions.

“We’ve all heard the phrase, ‘Dress for Success.’ When you’re going in for an interview, take that old saying to heart! How you dress has more of an effect than most think,” says Hannah Morgan, a Rochester area job search writer and speaker and founder of “It’s the interviewer’s first impression of you, and it comes before you utter a word.”

“There’s a delicate balance between overdressing and underdressing. You don’t want to be super casual, but you don’t want to wear a three-piece suit if the job doesn’t call for that.”

Career coach, speaker and author Robin Ryan put it another way in Forbes: “What doesn’t work is projecting a persona of someone who doesn’t care. Recognize that your dress for work is not what you wear to the interview.”

A 2020 survey of 1,000 hiring managers, commissioned by Greene King of the UK, confirmed the view that first impressions still really matter. Some 51 percent of employers reported judging job applicants based on their appearance. Of that percentage, 43 percent said they didn’t hire the candidate because of visible tattoos, another 40 percent didn’t’ hire candidates because of their clothing and some 30 percent said they didn’t hire candidates based on their hair color.

“Employers should be open-minded and hire people based on potential, rather than just appearance,” says Greene King Human Resources director Andrew Bush. “Unfortunately, our research shows that many businesses still judge a book by its cover — which means those talented, intelligent, and experienced applicants could be overlooked because they don’t conventionally ‘look the part.’”

Having a tattoo or a piercing doesn’t mean you are unable to do a job efficiently. Employers could be discriminating against potentially brilliant candidates.

“With changes in dress codes, what we’re really talking about is “impression management,” writes organizational psychologist Sarah Marrs in a piece for Psychology Today. That is what people do to present the best view of themselves at work. “It is a core part of social desirability — the normal human desire to be viewed favorably by others.

“You can essentially think of impression management as something we do to leverage — in our favor — the biases we know that others have in our favor.”

These norms, she writes, are “hard-wired” into how we make sense of the world and interact with people in it. “But are the norms well-founded? Are we sticking to them for good reason?”

There is little evidence of a link between strong impression management and strong performance. “There is some evidence of a relationship with interview success, particularly during unstructured interviews, but the effect drops off once it comes to in-role performance.,” Marrs writes.

“It seems that social desirability and impression management are so pervasive in our conscious and subconscious processes that it is hard to shake them, despite being unrelated to work performance.”

Author Alison Green also puts the focus on work performance, asking if any casually dressed jobseekers have been strong applicants in other ways. “Have you hired any of them, and if so, how did they do once on the job? Is there any correlation between performance and what they wore to the interview?”

“I do think it’s true that when someone flouts an established professional norm, you’ve got to ask what that might mean if you hire them and whether they’ll be out of sync with other professional norms, and whether that’s going to be a problem.”

In the meantime, it can be a confusing world for jobseekers who have to do more work than they used to do to figure out how to dress for an interview, whether that means business casual, business professional, business formal or just plain casual. “Look into company culture during your research,” Morgan says. “Look for photos and consider reaching out to current employees for information about the dress code. Use that information as a guide and go one step further to add a little polish to your aesthetics.”

Managers at Work is a monthly column exploring the issues and challenges facing managers. Contact Kathleen Driscoll with questions or comments by email at [email protected]