Spend any amount of time writing style advice columns and you’ll quickly discover which sartorial topics worry men the most. Number one? The job interview, far and away. (Number two is either dates or weddings, depending on your audience.)
There are a lot of reasons for the job interview to weigh heavily on people’s minds. It’s a very all-or-nothing situation; you’re in or you’re out. Of course more factors than your clothing come into play — but the clothes matter too, and even habitually sloppy dressers tend to be aware that interviews call for special care.
So let’s start by debunking a piece of well-meaning but incomplete advice: While some will say that you should wear a suit to every interview no matter what, the truth is that there is no default “interview suit.” And not every job interview even requires a suit; in the wrong setting it can actually hurt your chances.
Yes, a good business suit is frequently the best choice for an interview. In tomorrow’s article we’ll talk all about when to wear one and how to perfectly pull it off. But we’re also going to cover your other options, and most importantly we’ll talk about how to choose the right outfit for the kind of job you’re going for.
Before we dive into those specifics and the how of dressing well (and appropriately) for a job interview, however, today we’ll simply unpack exactly why it’s so important in the first place.
First Impressions, Final Results: Why Your Interview Appearance Matters
As dress standards in social settings relax, more and more people view business dress as an anachronism. Even in an interview setting, it can be easy to convince yourself that you don’t want to look “stuffy,” and so you may actually dress down a little, and hurt your chances of landing the gig you want.
Make no mistake: appearance matters. It matters enormously. There are actually at least four good reasons to dress not just well, but precisely — with attention to detail as well as general clothing choice — for any interview:
- The Gatekeeper Standard — automatically discarding sloppy dressers is an easy way for some interviewers to narrow down their applicant pool.
- Visual First Impressions — people’s decision-making is deeply influenced by visual stimulus, and the first look an interviewer takes at you determines a lot about what they think of you.
- Proving Your Worth — dressing well demonstrates basic competence and attention to detail; you’d be surprised how many interviewees can’t even do that.
- Boosts Self-Confidence — there’s a talismanic power in dressing the part; your brain gets more advantage from “dressing for success” than you might think.
Let’s take a look at each of those in detail:
#1: The Gatekeeper Standard — How Some Applicants Lose the Job Automatically
Hiring practices vary wildly from business to business. In larger companies, however, it’s typical for a manager or HR employee to be in charge of a weeding out process, where the company offers interviews to many more people than they plan to hire.
You can easily imagine how much fun that is for the hiring manager in question. The process isn’t over until he or she has narrowed the giant stack of applications down to one person. By the time they get to the face-to-face interviews, you can bet they’re looking for excuses to knock one more name off the list.
That makes sloppy or unprofessional style an easy gatekeeper standard. Managers with more applicants than they need have the luxury of throwing you out just because they didn’t think your shoes were properly shined.
It’s obviously not going to be the case in every setting. Some companies only interview a few people. Other times there’s been enough weeding out before the interview stage that they’re more interested in hearing what you have to say and doing a thorough vetting than in eliminating people as efficiently as possible.
But you can’t know going into an interview how picky the interviewer is going to be. Dressing well means you’re never taking the chance on an automatic flunk before you even get to your chair.
#2: First Impressions — What Your Clothing Is Saying Before You Open Your Mouth
The average interview for an entry level, white collar job is probably 30-45 minutes long. But your actual window of time to create a good impression is closer to just three seconds.
To make sense of that we have to go into a tiny bit of how the human brain works. We’re fundamentally visual creatures — the vast majority of the information we use to make decisions comes through the eyes. The other senses are deeply secondary. And for most of our history we’ve needed to process visual information into immediate judgments as a matter of survival — determining, for example, whether a rustle in the grass is a potential predator, potential prey, or just the wind.
Even though we don’t need to make that sort of survival judgment anymore, our brains still use the same basic wiring. Visual stimuli prompt immediate judgments. A sharp, perfectly presented suit with a good haircut and well-shined shoes makes us think “responsible, influential, important” before we get actual evidence that the wearer is any of those things. A scruffy presentation or even just a slouched posture says “lazy, low-status, unimportant,” regardless of whether any of those things are true or not.
In practical terms, that means your appearance sets the assumptions you will then get a chance to prove or disprove. If you look sharp, your interviewer is thinking “he seems on top of things, let’s see if he actually is.” If you’re looking a little sloppy, the thought process is more like “he doesn’t look so great, but I guess we’ll give him a shot.”
It’s a lot easier to reinforce an initial assumption than it is to force a change of opinion. By making the default assumption a positive one, you’re saving yourself an uphill struggle for correcting an unflattering first impression.
#3: Proving Your Worth
Apart from the occasional hands-on interview (something we’ll discuss in detail tomorrow), you don’t get to actually demonstrate job competencies at an interview. There’s rarely a direct “show us what you’ve got” skills moment.
What you can do is show that you’re capable of doing basic tasks well and precisely. Your appearance is the best and first example of that.
Knowing how to shine your shoes is unlikely to be a useful job skill (unless of course you happen to be applying to a haberdashery). But knowing that you look better with your shoes shined, and having both the good sense and the basic competence to do it before an interview conveys a universal skill: recognizing minimal standards and performing simple tasks with great attention to detail.
There are very few businesses (and managers for that matter) that don’t value that skill. By sartorially crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s, you’re proving that you have it. More importantly, skipping a step or showing up as “just good enough” rather than “razor sharp” shows that you don’t have an innate instinct to exceed expectations, and that makes you look like a much less tempting hiring prospect.
#4: Self-Confidence — The Lab Coat (or Sexy Underwear) Effect
Studies showing the “lab coat effect” go back to the early 20th century: strong visual stimuli create an associative faith in performance, so that people find, for example, a doctor in a white coat more trustworthy, intelligent, and medically reliable than a doctor in ordinary work clothes.
It’s only recently come to light that our own clothing choices have a similar effect. A study at Northwestern University, using the same white lab coat, found that a group of people told to wear “a doctor’s coat” performed much higher on science and reasoning tests than groups told that they were wearing “an artist’s smock” (the same piece of clothing), or their own clothes with no coat at all.
The implication that our own clothes can make us perform better isn’t actually revolutionary in the fashion world; women’s lingerie companies have been selling it for years. The highest-end brands don’t pitch their underwear as something that will “excite your husband,” but rather as something to “awaken your inner goddess,” “make you feel sexy,” and so on.
Business clothing has the same talismanic effect. When you dress like a captain of industry you’re more likely to be confident and assert yourself than when you’re wearing casual clothes. That’s a lot of power contained in a suit jacket, and it’s worth having at an interview.
Come back tomorrow when we’ll get into the nitty gritty details of dressing and grooming well for every kind of job interview.