By Perri Capell

As a high-school career adviser, I prepare students for professional interviews. Although I explain to my female students that they must wear a shirt that has a collar and does not reveal cleavage, they insist on showing up in blouses with tank tops underneath, often times with sequins or lace accenting their exposed cleavage. How widespread is this problem?


Young women may feel it’s perfectly fine to wear revealing clothes to interviews or work because of how working women are portrayed on television and in movies and other media. I often see more cleavage on TV shows about attorneys or detectives than I do at swimming pools!

But it isn’t appropriate, say recruiters and career advisers. The work world is mostly conservative, and hiring managers want interviewees to wear clothes that don’t reveal much skin.

“You cannot be too professional or too conservative in the way you dress for interviews because that will never offend anyone,” says Christine Goodson, director of talent sourcing for an international diversified products maker based in the Southeastern U.S., “but you can do the opposite by being too trendy.”

At her company, young female applicants sometimes arrive for interviews wearing low-cut “tank” style or midriff-baring tops, says Ms. Goodson. “I have had people come in here with their belly button showing,” she says. For young men, appearance problems usually involve their hair style or pants that ride too low on their hips, Ms. Goodson says.
Quantifying the extent of this problem isn’t easy. Craig Silverman, executive vice president of LLC, a recruiting firm based in Salem, N.H., estimates that about 10% of all job candidates he sees wear clothes that are too revealing or otherwise unprofessional for meetings with recruiters or employers. Most are women, he says. “They come in looking what they feel is very sharp, but the person behind the desk might feel it’s a bit edgy,” says Mr. Silverman.

Many companies have conservative dress codes, but even employers who allow business-casual dress prefer that job applicants wear suits, buttoned-up shirts or sweaters, and for women, skirts with hems that reach the bottom of their fingertips to interviews. Clothes should be clean and pressed. No spaghetti straps, flip-flops, sleeveless blouses, bare legs or open-toed shoes, please.

The issue isn’t so much about style as it is about credibility. Young women and men who aren’t dressed professionally aren’t taken seriously, says Guy Davis, senior assistant director of the career center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. When students wear casual or revealing clothes to career fairs, “I see the expressions on recruiters’ faces,” he says. “They don’t take them seriously as professionals.”

Ms. Goodson says that in her view, the problem is mostly confined to candidates who aren’t aware of the importance of “fit” — or matching well with a corporate culture. If an under-dressed applicant is qualified and otherwise suitable, Ms. Goodson says she tries to convince the hiring manager to overlook the person’s attire. “A lot of this can be solved with coaching and information,” she says. “But some hiring managers tell me they still are so turned off [by the clothes] they can’t get past it.”

It’s also possible that interviewers may be seeking ways to weed out qualified candidates, says Mr. Silverman. How you dress for the interview might be the determining factor, with the job going to the more professionally clothed person, he says. Applicants who are unclear about what to wear for an interview should ask their contacts at a company ahead of time about the dress code. When in doubt, “always go up a notch,” says Mr. Silverman. Even when you know the employer has a casual dress code, choose clothes that are more conservative and professional than the people you meet, he suggests.

From discussions I’ve had with a 19-year-old daughter, I know that young people don’t want to take an older person’s advice on how to dress or hear that their favorite styles aren’t helping them make a good impression.

Parents who may be trying to convince a young adult to dress more conservatively in interviews may want to take this person to a corporate setting to see how employees are dressed, says Mr. Davis.

“If you know someone in business, take your son or daughter [to their office] and have them look around,” he says.

About Joseph Doonie

Joe has over 35 years of experience in management and as a recruiter. He also maintains extensive experience in financial reporting, investment evaluations, financial systems applications, process reviews, and corporate governance. Joe has also assisted numerous clients by completing special studies relating to claims and underwriting performance. For the last 20 years he has been offering his professional recruiting and Resource Consulting services for his clients. He holds a Bachelors degree in Business Administration, Chartered Insurance Professional and is a Certified General Accountant.

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