When in Doubt, Tell the Job Seeker What to Wear to an Interview

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I came to the recruiting industry quite by happenstance.  So glad I did and I love telling stories to share lessons I have learned and to stress certain points. So, here’s a recruiting story for the job seeker, as much as it is for the recruiter…


We Can All Learn from a Recruiter’s Lesson

It was a nice day in late spring, a resume sat on my desk, basically taunting me. It was a brilliant CV – yes, I said CV – Curriculum Vitae. In certain industries – and not strictly European – an “academic resume” is called a CV. And for an Organic Chemist, that is what it is called.

The tech company where I was the Manager of Recruitment had been looking for the right fit for quite some time. A chemist in the light/germ sensor industry is difficult to come by. Someone with the right education and background who could assist in the development of a groundbreaking biotechnology was needed at this point in the product development process. And sitting before me was a quality candidate on paper.

The Director of Product Development had conducted a successful phone interview, as had another chemist (a peer) and ultimately, the Vice President of Engineering. The next step was the on-sight interview. Arrangements were made, flights and hotels booked. All seemed to be right and hope hung in the air – the hope that the long-time search for a new employee would be coming to a happy close.

And this was the day – that day in late spring – the candidate was arriving from his hotel, the other departmental chemist had picked him up from the nearby hotel, taken him to lunch and on a brief tour of the lab and building. During the tour, the duo swung by my office. I heard them coming, so I went out to greet them and that is when I knew it was over – he would not be getting a job offer. His loose combat pants bunched about his feet which were casually flopping in a pair of black flip-flops. His pale yellow, “interview-inappropriate” t-shirt clung loosely to masculine shoulders that proved his statement, “I play league water polo.”

I shook his hand and invited him into my office for a brief chat prior to his interview with the Hiring Manager, the VP of Engineering and others. I bluntly asked, “Did you need to stop by the hotel to change? I can give you a lift.” He raised his hand to shake it off, “I’m fine.” I asked if he was sure and he again waved me off. I finally asked, “So.., no suit? no shirt and tie? Going for the casual look today, huh?” He shrugged and laughed it off, “I thought, what the heck? It’s Southern California, it’s Newport Beach…,’ I will be fine dressing like this.”

His perfect CV lay before me, taunting me. (See? I was right about the taunt.) And the PhD didn’t matter. The published articles didn’t matter. The List of References seemed a joke. Why? Because, as old-fashioned as it may seem, the way he was dressed was disrespectful. He had anticipated a laid-back environment lightly laced with professionalism – when it was really the opposite – a professional environment that was ever-so-slightly laid back.  He didn’t get the job, as a matter of fact we didn’t even finish his scheduled full day of interviewing.  I took him back to the hotel and told him we would be in touch.

And I was – we were in touch – I signed him off stating that we were going to keep looking, that he wasn’t the right person for the job and I explained why.  He was unaccepting and called me every two weeks for several months asking if we had filled the position.  Of course, we had not but that didn’t matter, he was not right for our company.  I learned.  I learned to tell candidates, though I had always professed to not coach my candidates, I flat out told them to wear a suit or at the very least a shirt and tie for a man and dress top and pants for a woman.


You see, the candidate/job seeker looking bad made me look bad.  Lesson learned. 


Bottom line?  If you have an interview and are not sure what attire to wear, ask.  If you are conducting an interview, tell the job seeker what to wear.  Save everyone some heartache and expense.


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  1. This is a great post about a really important point. Sometimes if candidates have an attractive skill set, they think the general interview rules don’t apply to them. Whether you’re interviewing a candidate in person or through online video, what the candidate wears and how they appear still matters. If they show up on the other side of the webcam or the desk in a t-shirt, you know the candidate is not taking the interview very seriously. You want candidates who take the interview as seriously as they would take the job and dressing the part is one way they can convey that easily.

  2. Great post Rayanne. Counterpoint question – if you have to help the candidate avoid a major pitfall just to get hired, what happens when the company brings him on board and you aren’t around to help him sidestep the NEXT pitfall? In other words, is it possible that his inability to accurately assess proper interview attire was an important discovery for the hiring team?

    I understand that your role was to fill the position, but if you had coached him ahead of the interview and they had decided to hire him based on his being dressed in a suit, they’d have likely later discovered his inability to accurately assess some FUTURE situation and that could have serious negative impact on the organization. In other words, might it have been the better outcome that he surfed in for the interview and failed?


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