How-To Time: Job Interview Dress Codes

A guide on dressing for those pesky virtual job interviews, courtesy of the pandemic.

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Fashion Month has just concluded (Sept. 14 – Oct. 6) and that’s too bad. There’s really nothing better, in this writer’s obviously biased opinion, then watching showcases of luxuriant and out there fashions. We saw highlights from Loewe, subverting said luxury with a bit of a wink and some very bubbly looking garms; on a separate note, we also had the privilege (not really) of witnessing a sneaker collaboration between Cole Haan (the folks who make the dress shoes you get at the mall) and workplace messaging company Slack.

Let me be clear: I am not a serious sneakerhead (I’m more partial to vintage sweatshirts). But it doesn’t take a genius to recognize the irony of a collab between a shoe designer (the object that is responsible for covering the feet that take you places, though not right now of course) and an application optimized for our work-from-home times. In other words, it’s a fashion object that perfectly encapsulates the absurdity of the moment. How 2020.

But I digress. One thing fashion shows don’t highlight is the supposed new normal: party on bottom and business on top. For all those video chats and zoom meetings we are now in the habit of wearing business or business casual on top and sweats (or just plain underwear) on bottom. Basically, WFH has us all weary of actual pants. Add virtual job interviews to the mix, which are still happening despite the dismal economy, and the whole thing is a recipe for disaster, like the time I poured lemon juice into my milk-based banana smoothie.

So I thought now would be a good time (you’re not doing anything, right?) to run through a refresher on interview dress codes that specifically factor in the virtual nature of the interviews themselves. And yes, it will require pants.

Source: Getty Images

What’s the Job?

This is a question you need to ask yourself. Because the type of job you’re interviewing for, like it or not, will determine at least a bit the type of outfit you should wear for your interview. The rise of Silicon Valley coincided with a more casual, more laidback work style. If you’re applying for a job at an artistic or creative company you might expect things to be more casual as well. 

But the Finance world is still as formal as ever. In-between all these options are still even more variance. It’s enough to make you give up and go back to watching Emily in Paris and rooting for Lily Collins’ eyebrows. But don’t quit. Lucas Bravo can wait.

1. Take a moment to research the industry you’re looking to get a job in. This is as basic as it gets. You’re simply gauging what the industry standard is for now.

2. Next, research the specific company you’re applying to. This will give you a clue as to company culture. There will also usually be photos on the company website that may indicate some of the dress code rules for current employees.

There are a bunch of industry specific interview dress code guides out there (here’s one from 2018 for Finance). In most cases, the safest bet, for both men and women, is a business casual outfit. Below we’ll dive into what that means, even on your computer screen.

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A Better Business Casual

The Indeed.com Career Guide on dressing for interviews says “business casual generally means dressing professionally without being overly formal.” Forgo the t-shirt and pockmarked jeans (as well as the Patagonia baggies I’m sure you’re wearing right now).

The gentleman in the photo above has the right idea (thought to be fair I can’t see if he’s wearing pants or not). His collared shirt is pressed and neat and his hair is properly attended to. You can’t go wrong with a white or blue dress shirt, tucked in (there’s that pesky pants problem again). A formal blouse with a casual jacket or blazer works well for women as well.

If you find your home office a little chilly, add a sweater, cardigan, or blazer on top. The temptation here is to go with one of those so-called “fun” sweaters, but don’t fall into that trap. This is a job interview, not a chance to show off your latest ugly Christmas sweater. Keep it neutral: grays, blues, browns are all excellent options and will invariably go with the rest of your ensemble.

On a personal note, I’m a fiend for second-hand, thrifted, and vintage clothing. Fashion is wreaking havoc on the Earth’s climate (hey, I live there!) and big shocker: we don’t have a back-up planet (though I hear Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are making tremendous headway on that front. Elon, call me please!). Check out your local second-hand store, Goodwill, or apps like Depop and Poshmark for great finds at discount prices. I’m serious on this one.

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Confidence is Key

Now you’ve got some clothing options, what next? This is where fit comes into focus. A lot of job interview dress articles will leave you here, with a few ideas for your wardrobe and that’s it. But not me. I wouldn’t do that to you.

Why does fit matter?

The actual fit of the clothes matters so much for a few reasons.

1. Makes you appear neater.

Your prospective employer wants to know that you put effort into preparing for your interview, including how you dress and appear. It signals your readiness to answer any and all questions. For whatever reason, employers correlate appearance with effectiveness. Like it or not, we may as well make the best of it.

2. Makes you more confident.

When you look better, you feel better. It’s just that simple. Coming in to an interview (even virtually) with your best duds will make you ready to tackle any questions they throw your way. And the confidence will translate and carry to the interviewer, even through the computer screen.

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The Elephant in the Room (aka Pants)

Now I wouldn’t normally do a whole different section on pants for an article like this. I would have simply mentioned a solid pair of chinos or slacks for guys (again in neutral colors) and the same or a pencil skirt (at least knee length) for the gals. But these are pandemic times we’re living in: previously unimagined, unforeseen, unintended. So the question is: should you put on pants for your virtual job interview?

*Sigh. Braces for thrown vegetables.* Yes, yes you should. Bear with me! Wearing exactly what you would for an in-person job interview (pants and maybe even shoes too!) will put you in the right headspace to succeed. You don’t want to spend any part of your interview thinking about the fact that you’re currently wearing the same pair of underwear for the third straight day. You want to be focused on the interviewer’s questions and, so long as your new clothes fit right, that’s exactly what you will be doing.

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Brush Up those Manners

I know I said this was all about clothing. That was a little, white lie. Because a job interview, even a virtual one, is simply more complicated than putting on a shirt sans stains and calling it a day.

1. Show up on time (or early!).

There’s a great joke by Mike Birbiglia about how early lasts for hours, on-time lasts just a SECOND, and then late is (*ominous voice*) forever. It’s true in real life, and it’s even true virtually. But showing up early is more complicated digitally; I would recommend clicking the link (for Zoom) or pressing call (for Skype or other platforms) about a minute before the scheduled time. Some platforms (like Zoom) will put you in a virtual waiting room until the host is ready or leave you in the meeting until the other party shows up.

2. Sit up straight.

I’m not your parent, telling you to sit up straight at dinnertime. When you interview virtually there are fewer mistakes to make (like giving someone a weak handshake, looking too slovenly, etc.), but that also means that each little detail counts for more. So sit up straight and smile for the camera.

3. Make sure your space isn’t too distracting and is as neat as your brand-new outfit.

It’s okay to have art on your walls and even to have your bed in the background of your call. We’re all dealing with imperfect solutions and limitations of space right now. But make sure the art that is visible is relatively tame or tasteful and doesn’t signal anything about yourself you wouldn’t want your prospective employer to know. The bed thing is simple: Just. Make. Your. Bed. Done, there you go.

4. Be an active listener.

While online video tools are reliable, they aren’t the same as normal conversation. I don’t recommend too many verbal listening cues (uh-huhs, yeses, and the like). Keep things nonverbal with a nodding head (do not be a bobble head though). Slightly tilt your head to the left or right as you listen as well. This is an excellent nonverbal signal that shows you’re paying attention.

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Final Thoughts

You can see that dressing for your next job interview is about so much more than just clothes. It’s about attitude, preparation, and telegraphing to your future employer that you want this job. The old adage of “dress for the job you want, not the job you have” applies here. If the job you currently have is “professional Netflix binger” (me too!), but the job you want is in Accounting, Cybersecurity, or something else entirely, then you need to dress for it. Of course, if finding a job at all is your issue (which is more than understandable) consider heading back to school to brush up on your skills and certificates. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. We’re living in stressful times. Don’t let your next virtual job interview stress you out even further.