A frequent question that comes up when I’m teaching Job Interview Skills is, “What should I wear to the interview?” A recent class I led had a few Baby Boomers, both men and women, saying that with the business causal environment, they wondered what does “professional look like?” One student said, “Clothes don’t matter anymore. You can go casual, especially for tech jobs. You can wear what you wear to work any day.” Most of my students disagreed. I also disagreed. What do employers notice? I asked several HR people their thoughts, and one thing is for sure, women notice your clothing, the brands you wear, your shoes, and the brand of handbag you carry if you’re a lady.
The Wall Street Journal ran an article discussing whether you should wear luxury brands to an interview. They stated that luxury brands convey wealth, high social standing, and power. But two researchers at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Dr. Rucker and Mr. Cannon, recently asked if wearing luxury brands can ever backfire. That is, might there be a social cost to flashing a Gucci or Burberry logo?
Research suggests that job seekers should carefully consider the messages luxury products convey. When a job requires trustworthiness, empathy, likability, or kindness, you might consider leaving these status symbols at home.
To explore these complex reactions, Dr. Rucker and Mr. Cannon devised four experiments. In the first one, 120 male and female participants were shown identical photos of a man in a T-shirt. In one case, the T-shirt had no logo. In others, the shirt had a Gucci logo (the researchers chose Gucci because it ranks among the top luxury brands globally).
The participants were then asked to rate the man on various characteristics, such as social status, class, warmth, and caring. Participants rated the Gucci-logo man lower for traits like warmth, trustworthiness, and kindness but as having higher status. They also felt that the Gucci man was trying hard to manage their impression of him.
The researchers then replicated the experiment with 120 different men and women, this time using identical photos of a woman with a handbag—one unmarked, the other a Burberry bag with its trademark plaid pattern. Similarly, participants rated the woman with the Burberry bag to have a higher status but lower warmth.
Delving further, 115 undergraduates were asked to review questionnaires filled out by candidates for business simulation and to select the candidate with whom they would most like to work. The questionnaires were identical except that some mentioned luxury-brand names—Prada, Rolex, Burberry, Porsche—in the candidates’ answers.
It turned out that the students preferred to work with the luxury-brand candidate for a publicity job, but picked the non-luxury-brand candidate for the human-resources job. “People were choosing based on whether status or warmth was necessary” for the job, Mr. Cannon says.
What HR Says
Lizzie Rahm, HR senior manager, Clark Nuber, a professional services firm, sees many job applicants as she handles the recruiting duties for her company. When I talked to her about the Wall Street article, she had much more specific advice to offer on what you should – and shouldn’t — wear to an interview.
“Most employers still expect men and women to show up to the job interview in a suit, said Rahm. “Recruiters and HR managers do notice how polished the applicant is. We think, ‘Are they in a nice suit that fits them well?’ Would they be a good representative of our company? I don’t get a first impression based on handbags or luxury brands, but some of the interview team does notice that.”
We discussed Rahm’s recommendations on dressing in today’s business casual workplace. “Interviews are special events, and you need to put effort into your attire. For example, a Baby Boomer should come in a suit. He or she is likely interviewing for a professional or managerial job and needs to look sharp.” When I asked her would she offer the same advice if it were a tech company, Rahm replied, “Depending on the job, I’d say dress up but not a full suit. The better options for men are dress shirt and suit coat with matching pants but no tie.” You should also wear nice shoes. Be sure they are polished – people notice. “Ladies have the option of pants suit or skirted suit, or a dress needs to very business professional looking. It’s wiser to use a jacket and skirt or Blazer over a dress. Be sure whatever outfit you choose, you look great in.
Rahm stated that their company has surveyed job applicants and asked what they should wear to the interview. Surprisingly, even Millennials said “business professional” defined as a suit, even though they know they won’t be wearing one at work.
Rahm explained, “What you wear to work is not what you wear to the interview. Companies have work events. We have events where we send out an email telling everyone they need to wear a suit. She calls this advice, “Dress for Your Day.” That means you should also dress up for presentations and client-facing meetings, dress down when you are only in the office. Rahm stated that she has two to three jackets that stay in my office in case someone shows up I was not expecting, and I need that more professional look.”
Mistakes To Avoid
“Every age bracket makes mistakes. Millennials and college students can appear in sloppy clothes that aren’t ironed. They did best with what they had in their closet, but he or she didn’t make an effort to show us they are a professional,” stated Rahm.
“Baby Boomers sometimes come in the most inappropriate clothing. Out-of-date suits and clothing that doesn’t fit anymore. Fit is important, no matter what your age is. For some of our Admin positions, ladies sometimes just come wearing very casual clothing and are not prepared for the interview. They don’t know how to answer the questions appropriately, they lack confidence, and they don’t sell themselves at all. They haven’t been coached on how to highlight their strengths and what they have done. Baby Boomer women often seem to be afraid it’ll be bragging – so they fail in the interview and don’t get hired.”
Your first impression is critical because, like it or not, employers do make a snap judgment based on your attire and presentation. Wearing the appropriate clothes and having a firm handshake, a warm smile, and standing like you have confidence that you are the right person to hire is critical.
Rahm noted one more piece of advice. “We care about warmth – our culture is about connecting with clients, and we have a collaborative environment. In today’s workplace, many jobs require you to project warmth and sell your skills at the same time. Don’t underestimate the importance of a smile.”
This article was originally published in Forbes.com.