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Decoding the interview dress code

When it comes to job hunting, we’ve all heard the sayings: “dress to impress” and “dress for success.” However, with companies beginning to loosen their dress codes, the classic suit and tie may not be the right choice anymore. Lots of different dress code terms get thrown around without any clear definitions. So, let’s decode the modern interview dress code.

How do you know what is appropriate attire for an interview?

Interview Dress Code Depends on the Company

“Dress for the job you want.” That’s the golden rule of interviews. But, this rule shouldn’t be taken at face value. Yes, you want to dress appropriately for the job you want, but you also want to make a good first impression.

Andy Teach, author of “From Graduation to Corporation,” told Forbes that “many, if not most hiring managers believe that people who dress appropriately for a job interview are more likely to be successful because they look the part.”

So, that means you need to gather some intel on the company you’re interviewing with. Get to know what the standard business attire is for your potential new role. Once you know the dress code, you should aim to impress by dressing up a level. So, “dress like the boss of the job you want.”

Your first goal should always be to make a good first impression. If it’s a traditional corporate environment (i.e. suit and tie), then you should wear a suit and tie in conservative colors. If you’re interviewing for a bartender job at a beach-side bar, don’t show up in shorts and flip-flops. Even if that’s what you would wear if you worked there, you should step up your game. Wear khakis, a button-down shirt and closed-toe shoes.

Business casual vs. business formal

Business casual and business formal are the most common dress codes. Unfortunately, these terms can mean different things at different companies. Business casual presents the greatest room for interpretation. Let’s take a closer look at business formal and business casual dress codes.

Business formal

Business formal dress codeAccording to the Kenan Flagler Business School, business formal attire requires a full (matching) suit in conservative colors (i.e. black, dark grey, or dark blue). Shoes should be closed toe or low-heeled shoes in similar colors, and the shirts should be either a classic button-down or formal blouse in white or cream. Women, however, may wear a black or dark blue shirt underneath their jacket. For both men and women, all jewelry should be minimal and conservative.

Business casual

Business casual dress codeUnfortunately, the business casual definition is a little less clear.  For the most part, men should consider wearing a button down or collared shirt, blazer or sweater, slacks and closed-toed shoes. For women, consider a formal blouse, paired with a sweater or blazer, knee length or longer skirt and open-toed (but low-heeled) shoes. And, of course, please leave out the flip-flops or jeans, which can often be deal breakers.

When in doubt, just ask

If you are unsure about how you need to dress, then just go ahead and ask. Putting yourself out there and ensuring that you get things right is much better than going into an interview and making a bad impression. If you’d rather not ask, or if you don’t have the opportunity to, then just dress business formal. No one is going to look down on you for going the extra mile.

The Image You Project

Body Language in an Interview

Aside from dressing to impress, there are some other things you should consider, like posture and body language. For example, Business Insider contributor James Rosebush stresses the importance of pulling your hair out of your face so you aren’t caught fidgeting with it in the middle of an interview. Sitting up tall and straight is always better than slouching, but be careful not to look too stiff.

Tattoos and Piercings in the Workplace

Although body art is now more broadly accepted than say 10 years ago, covering up your tattoos and removing non-traditional jewelry for an interview is a good idea. U.S. News & World Reports cites a 2011 poll as finding that “31 percent of nearly 3,000 hiring managers said they would be less likely to promote someone with a visible tattoo, and 37 percent said the same for piercings.”

You want the interviewer to be focused on you and the value you could bring to the company. Tattoos and piercings may cause a distraction in the hiring process. However, some experts suggest taking a “cover-and-tell” approach. Cover your tattoos during the interview process, but tell the potential employer about your tattoos if they are in a place that would be visible during normal day-to-day work.

What to Wear for an Interview at a Career Fair

The career fair is perhaps the most confusing place when it comes to an interview dress code and that’s because of the sheer volume of employers you’ll be meeting throughout the day. Your best bet in this kind of situation is to figure out which company booths you plan on going to and based off that you can figure out whether you’ll need to suit-up or relax a bit. If you aren’t sure about the companies you plan on visiting then assume that you’ll need to be dressed in business formal attire.