Thavy Read
Oct 7, 2010

Appropriate etiquette and style for job interviews

Thavy Read, sales and marketing practice head at Talent2 in Hong Kong, on dressing for success. Has the expectation changed?

Appropriate etiquette and style for job interviews

Cracking the industry dress code

One of the questions we are increasingly asked by candidates is what should they wear to interview? This has become a highly discussed topic given the evolution in corporate dress codes in recent years. Not surprisingly, there is confusion about dress expectations.

While policy will vary within a sector, financial and professional services firms are still typically at the top of the 'smart' hierarchy with a more formal and conservative dress code, with companies say in the tech or sporting goods sectors tending to operate a more casual policy.

Brand ambassador

Regardless of sector, as an employee, you are an ambassador for your employer brand, and companies strive to ensure their people reinforce those brand values.  After all, if we think about it as consumers ourselves, the professionally dressed financial advisor, the smartly uniformed client services manager and the immaculate beauty advisor all help to convey a sense of trust in their offering - that our money will be well managed, our stay at the luxury resort will deliver an exceptional experience, or we will be delightfully rejuvenated by a new skincare product. And while attention to grooming and attire tends to come under a more powerful spotlight in industries such as the afore-mentioned retail and hospitality sectors, it also plays a critical role in other sectors for employees in client or external stakeholder facing roles.

Interview protocol - what to wear...

While office dress codes may be difficult to crack, what does remain constant is the positively unique and, let’s face it, subjective experience of the job interview where first impressions count.  While no-one has ever proved a relationship between appearance and capability, it can be a very important influencer – particularly when candidates are similarly matched in terms of suitability for a role. 

Just as you research and prepare to talk about your resume and past experience in relation to the role you are interviewing for, so should you think ahead and plan your wardrobe for this key meeting. This includes the basics such as getting your outfit dry cleaned and polishing your shoes, but also requires checking on dress codes if you are not sure. 

If in doubt, it’s always best to dress a little smarter than the official dress code, particularly if the company has a more casual policy. For example, we were recently asked by a candidate interviewing for a senior role at a jeanswear company what he should wear for the meeting since jeans are acceptable daily attire.  We recommended replacing the formal suit with a smart jacket and pants, and a shirt and tie as an appropriate alternative.

Similarly, just as the ad agency environment is a creative hotbed of personal style, in reality if you are attending a new client pitch, you would dress differently from every day.  So, while a more relaxed interpretation of the pinstripe suit might be a smarter alternative for the interview, leave the true creativity to your portfolio.

And what not to wear...

When it comes to the interview, the devil is most certainly in the detail. There is nothing that draws unwanted attention to itself as badly as scuffed shoes, chipped nail varnish or dirty fingernails – the list of howlers is endless but you get the picture. Cleverly matched and accessorized outfits can look smart, but avoid overly bold colours and patterns as well as too much or heavy jewellery.  

Remember, you want to keep the focus on the content of what you say, so you’ll be remembered for your capabilities and value add, rather than as the candidate with the creased shirt, the overpowering perfume or the loud tie.

The virtual interview

In today’s virtual world, we have seen an increase in remote first stage interviews across global office locations.  The rules on interview attire more or less equally apply to these remote interview situations, and here’s why - the camera will typically focus on a head and shoulders profile of the interviewee. So rules on personal grooming, and creating an overall smart appearance are critical, and attention to simplicity probably even more so. The camera can distort bright colours and patterns, so muted pastel tones or white shirts, with darker contrasting jackets work well. Ladies should keep ear or neckline jewellery simple, and men, ensure the tie is neatly knotted and not too patterned.

While there are no visual cues via telephone, there are still some key points to remember, especially if you take the call at home. For example, if it’s an early morning or week end call, don’t take the call in your pyjamas.  Get dressed as if you were going to work. This will help you feel more professional, and therefore sound more professional.

Slouching posture or leaning your head on your hands as you talk can distort your voice and make you sound unprofessional – and this can be very off-putting for the interviewer. There is nothing worse than sensing the person you are talking to has just got out of bed. It sends a message that this person is not taking the situation seriously and giving it the attention it deserves. The same goes for background disturbances such as door bells, dogs, babies and so on. 

Final comments

In conclusion, while workplace dress codes have evolved, the interview still remains a finite window in which to showcase your best attributes and make an overall positive impression.  

Know your industry and the expectations and dress appropriately. If in doubt, err on the side of conservative and/ or smarter and seek guidance from your consultant or those close to the business. Experience has shown that attention to grooming and an overall smart and professional appearance has not counted against a candidate at interview, while sloppy appearance or inappropriately casual attire can, and has been the downfall of many a candidate.

Oh and by the way, when it comes to interview etiquette – a final piece of advice, please turn off your phone.

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