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Dress for Success…At Your Job Interview

How you dress for your interview is one of those things that may not help you much but can hurt you a lot.

A question I frequently as asked is “Can I wear jeans to a job interview”. I’m going to answer that question below.

But first, let’s talk about the ticklish topic of how to dress for an interview. Yes, how well you do in your interview depends more on your qualifications and how well you sell them, but your appearance is certainly part of how you sell yourself. And a big part of your appearance is how you’re dressed.

Whoever is on your interview panel will see you before they hear you say anything. This means your appearance will make the first impression, so don’t allow your clothes to detract from that first impression.

Dress One Step Up

If you’ve done other research, I’m sure that one of the first things you’ve read about how to dress for an interview is you should dress one step up from the position you are seeking. As a Hiring Manager, I completely agree with this advice. 

Yes, you run the risk of being slightly overdressed. However, this is offset by the fact that it demonstrates respect for the company and the hiring process. In all the years I’ve been a Hiring Manager, I’ve never marked someone down for being overdressed and I’ve never known another Hiring Manager who would do this. 

If anything, you’ll get extra credit for wanting to make the best first impression.

Here’s a personal story that illustrates this point. Many years ago, I was looking for a new position and landed an interview with Microsoft. Since it was for a management position, I showed up for the interview dressed in a suit and tie and waited in the lobby for the HR person to come and get me.

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When the elevator door opened up, he came bouncing out dressed in – wait for it – a tee-shirt, shorts, and sandals. 

I looked at him and he looked at me and we both laughed at the same time. “Don’t worry,” he assured me, “everyone comes dressed like you for the interview. In fact, we expect it and appreciate that you took the time to make a good first impression.”

So, how do you determine what dressing up one step looks like, so you can avoid the mistake I made? The best way, if you’re able to visit in advance the location where you’ll interview, is to go there during the week towards the end of the workday and observe the employees as they are leaving. 

You won’t know which employees are in positions similar to yours, but you’ll get a general idea of how the majority dress. 

This won’t be practical for most people, so the next best thing is to call their HR department, explain that you have an interview coming up, and ask them what would be appropriate to wear. Don’t worry, you won’t look stupid. In fact, they will appreciate that you asked, as so few candidates do.

Finally, the gold standard is if you know someone who already works there. They can then tell you exactly what dressing one step up would look like.

Dressing for Blue Collar and Non-Management Office Worker Positions

You should also use your common sense. For example, if you have an interview for a job in a warehouse or factory, common sense tells you that everyone probably wears jeans to work. If you’re a man, dressing one step up means you should wear ‘Dockers’ style pants, a shirt with a collar, and hard sole shoes (no athletic shoes). For women, colored casual pants and a nice blouse or sweater.

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If you’re interviewing for a non-management office position, business casual is likely the norm. You should then wear a tie with dress slacks or ‘Docker’ style slacks, either is acceptable, and avoid athletic shoes. A sport coat looks good but isn’t essential.  

For women, a dressy pantsuit works well, with a dressy top and shoes with a low or mid-heel. The last thing you want is to stumble with your six-inch spike heels!

You get the picture.

The important thing is to look neat. Make sure your clothes are clean and ironed. It may sound silly, but if you have a sloppy appearance, many Hiring Managers will assume you’re a sloppy worker and/or don’t care enough to try to make a good first impression.

Dressing for Management and Professional Positions

Now let’s cover management and professional positions. There’s nothing to wonder about here, as it’s fairly straightforward.

For men, wear a suit and tie with dress shoes (and for heaven’s sake don’t forget to shine them!).

For women, it’s best to wear a formal pantsuit and shoes with conservative heels. Why not a dress? Because with a pantsuit you won’t have to worry about the proper dress length or whether or not to wear stockings. You also won’t have to worry about adjusting your dress every time you stand up or sit down.

For both men and women, keep jewelry to a minimum. You don’t want the bling you wear to detract from what you have to say. 

Your Real Question: Are Jeans Okay to Wear to an Interview?

I’m often asked if it’s okay to wear jeans to an interview, especially if they are expensive designer jeans. Regardless of the nature of the job, my answer is always no. Even for a job as a custodian!

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No matter how good you think you may look in those expensive designer jeans you just bought, many Hiring Managers will see you as disrespectful and not serious about the interview or the job. Not all Hiring Managers think this way, but enough that it’s just not worth the risk.

No matter what clothes you choose to wear, they should be conservative. Now is not the time to make a radical fashion statement unless you are interviewing for a modeling job.

Also, avoid bright checkered patterns, loud colors, unusual colors, tie dyes, etc. These are visually distracting and make it hard for the interview panel to take you seriously.

You want to make sure the interview is about your qualifications, not your clothes.

Your main goal when dressing for an interview is to wear clothes that are so neutral that people don’t give them a second look. It’s your voice you want to be heard, rather than your clothes. Your interview is not the place to seek compliments about your clothes.

Here’s How Clothes Can Hurt You

I was once interviewing someone for an outside sales position. He looked good on paper, had all the right qualifications, and was articulate and confident when answering questions. So what was the problem?

Here it is. He was dressed entirely in black. Black tie, black shirt, black jacket, black shoes, and blank pants. 

To make matters worse, he never smiled. His sober expression, combined with the Johnny Cash outfit, made it hard for me to shake the impression that he really should be interviewing for a mortician’s job. 

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I just couldn’t get past his clothes. It was so distracting that there was no way I could see him in front of our customers. This caused me to pass on an otherwise well-qualified applicant. First impressions really are the most lasting ones.

I’ll sum this up with a few words: look neat and dress conservatively. This will result in Hiring Managers paying attention to what you say – not how you look. 

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