Modesty is the Best Dress Policy in Interviews

By Marc Poirier, General Manager of Abbey Placements LLC

My grandfather once told me that the best-dressed man in the room was the most unremarkable. If after meeting him you could not remember what he wore, then his attire was entirely appropriate for the situation. His clothing enhanced his conversation by not distracting from it.

When interviewing, many assume they should dress as formally as possible. This assumption is well intended but misguided. If dressing formally were of utmost importance, then we should all rent tuxedoes and ball gowns for interviews. Wearing a tuxedo may be appropriate when interviewing for a butler position, but for nearly all other jobs it is a distraction.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, underdressing for an interview is also a distraction and can inadvertently convey disrespect. Underdressing indicates either:

  • A lack of research about the company
  • A lack of interest in the position
  • A lack of judgment about appropriate attire

I know of an instance when the hiring manager cited the prospective salesman’s bright orange shirt and tie as the reason he dismissed an application. The manager told me later that he simply could not imagine anyone doing business with a man wearing a bright orange shirt and tie!

Dressing for an interview is about modesty: dressing in a moderate fashion. If you are applying for a sales position, wear a dark suit with a light shirt and tie. If you are applying for a material handling position, wear a polo shirt, blue jeans, and steel-toed boots. If you are applying for a registered nurse position, wear either business apparel or neutral colored medical scrubs depending on the environment. Dress in such a way that the hiring manager can visualize you working in the job.

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To be more specific, here are some appropriate ways to present yourself as well as distracting things to avoid in most interviews:

Appropriate: Deodorant
Distracting: Cologne, aftershave, or body spray

Appropriate: Neat and trim fingernails
Distracting: Dirty fingernails or long, fake fingernails

Appropriate: Simple jewelry
Distracting: Large fashion jewelry

Appropriate: A recently bought, well-fitting suit
Distracting: An old suit that no longer fits quite right

Appropriate: Pressed or ironed clothes, preferably tailored
Distracting: Wrinkled clothes, dirty clothes, or smelly clothes

Appropriate: Neutral colors and patterns
Distracting: Bright colors and complex patterns

Appropriate: Matching belt, shoes and socks (e.g. black with gray, brown with tan)
Distracting: Mismatched belt, shoes or socks (e.g. black with brown, gray with tan)

Appropriate: Conservative attire
Distracting: Revealing attire

Appropriate: Fresh breath
Distracting: Breath that smells like food, smoke or alcohol

Appropriate: Smiling, eye contact, firm handshake and good posture
Distracting: Frowning, looking away, limp handshake and sitting too relaxed

If possible, stop by the job site a day or two ahead of the interview and observe how everyone is dressed. When in doubt, wear clothing slightly nicer than may be necessary. It is better to overdress than underdress. But best of all is dressing entirely appropriate to the job interview. May your interviewer remember nothing about what your wore and everything about what you said and did.