SmartRecruiters Blog

“What’s that Candidate Wearing?”

So often, job seekers ask me, “What should I wear?” Before you roll your eyes and click away, I’m asking you to give a minute to the relationship between attire and interviewing. You might respond to What should I wear? with “Use common sense,” or “Just exercise good judgment -THE END.” But that’s just it, your common sense and your good judgment in the interview room are someone else’s skin tight club dress with 6” heels or dirty jeans with Chuck Taylors and Grateful Dead tee. Sound ridiculous but it does happen.

It’s a delicate balance of common sense, generational alignment, personal tastes, internal and external fashion designs and individuality. What clothes match the job responsibility and the company culture?

We are conditioned to make judgments; we evaluate potential mates based on size, shape, color, automobiles, jewelry, shoes and sadly sometimes, by things even more trivial.  So it’s “natural” to judge a potential job candidate by their clothing.  It would be nice to say that clothes don’t matter but they do. It’s a fine line between fashion, professionalism, generational differences and personal judgments.

I’m a sneaker guy; I love CLEAN (really clean) sneaks. But some folks hate them, think they are for kids and men should wear hard bottoms…See what I did just there I just made a generalization, judgment and emasculation all at once. It’s easy and we do it all the time.

Mark Zuckerberg had a meeting with Wall Street executives which made front page news because he wore an old hoodie instead of a business suit. The suits of Wall-Street versus the Hoodies of tech nerds. But Zuckerberg is one of the youngest, richest and most importantly, SMARTEST people in the world. If he was available and if you could afford him, you’d hire him in a heartbeat, regardless of his clothes. On the other end of the spectrum, check out what Will Ferrell wears to a janitor job interview in the movie, Step Brothers:

[EDITOR’S NOTE: It is the Fart and not the tuxedo which causes him not to get the job.]

Being from Gen-X, I was taught you always put your best foot forward and that meant you wore the fanciest duds in the closet. That’s a traditional approach. Surely you’ve been advised to dress for the job you want and not the job you have. Well what happens when the boss has no sense of style or fashion? I’ve had some bosses that wore action slacks, dickey shirts and penny loafers (with nickels in them). Sorry folks you won’t catch me dead in that tattered mess. And that shouldn’t mean we can’t work together.

So what do we do here? How should the modern day job seeker dress? Should the interviewer judge a candidate by their physical appearance, more specifically their clothing?

Suppose a middle aged candidate shows up to a job interview for Information Technology position, dressed in a nicely tailored suit and wingtips, only to discover his interviewer is a 20 something Millennial dressed in dark jeans, white shirt with a vest and a neck tie that is hanging loosely around his neck.  There’s probably going to be judgments being made.

My POV is that it’s all about boundaries and borders. What is out of bounds and what is acceptable? Let’s look at the business suit, classic American business suit; you know it when you see it. But what if we take that suit, lose the tie, open the collar and push up the sleeves?  There are literally hundreds of combinations you can make but this is not about style as it is about judgments we make based on what we have been taught and experienced.  And I’m here to tell you that you could be losing out on some major talent by judging and not discovering the best candidate.

Now, here’s my advice to both the interviewer and interviewee. First the interviewee:

    1. Do your research. Google the company. Look for the about us page, look for community photos. Do a cross search, look on LinkedIn and even Twitter. See what kind of image the company has and if they have no social identity then odds are they are a little more conservative.
    2. Mix it up. Look, not everyone thinks like you or like me, we’re all different but there are certain things that are constant, like dressing nicely.  I’ve never heard of someone NOT getting a job because they wore a suit. This is the 21st there are different cuts and styles of suits that are more modern and trendy…get one.
    3. Expect the unexpected. You may be interviewed by a guy that looks like Donald Trump or a lady that looks like Michelle Obama, either way don’t be alarmed by sex, shape, size, color or outfit. Far as you know that person’s the boss and most important person in your life at that moment.

And for the interviewer:

    1. Walk a mile in their shoes. Think about how nervous they might be. Think about how they don’t know what to expect. They are nervous, so cut them a break and try to focus on skills and education. How would this candidate perform?
    2. Don’t trip. By this, I mean power trip. Don’t use the interview setting as an opportunity to assert your limited amount of power or make assessments based on ill relevant factors, like suit color, skin color, type of shoe, or brand name.
    3. When scheduling the interview, communicate clearly the organizational environment. Let the candidate know if you are conservative, business causal or simply casual workplace.
    4. Interview the person not the clothes.

Problem solved.

Chris Fields is an HR professional and leadership guy who blogs and dispenses great (not just good) advice at Cost of Work. Connect with Chris via email at


Chris Fields

Chris Fields is an HR professional and leadership guy who blogs and dispenses great (not just good) advice at Cost of Work & ResumeCrusade.