HR and Job Interview Attire

When I was still working at my former company, I was continually trying to hire meat trimmers. Hand trimming large pieces of meat and poultry to exacting specifications with a knife is a skill not easily learned and no longer taught. And the best meat trimmers are usually taken by large grocery store chains with an in-house meat department, so finding qualified candidates was always a challenge.

After the resume review and a phone screen, I would ask those still in the running to come into the plant for an interview. I always warned the candidate not to wear professional or business clothes, because the main reason I wanted them at the plant was to do a cutting test to see if they truly had the knife skills they claimed to have. Cutting meat in a wet, refrigerated space is sloppy work, and I certainly didn’t want anyone ruining their good clothes.

You see, I was interested in the applicant’s skills and abilities, and not at all in their appearance. In fact, throughout our entire building, even the office, I had one clothing rule: clothes should be reasonably clean.

But if you are a job candidate and asked me advice for what to wear to an interview, I would tell you the same thing everyone else would: wear business attire. Maybe business casual, if you were certain it fit in the company culture. I would never think of going to a job interview or even certain business functions dressed in shorts and flip flops, or blue jeans and a hoodie. All kinds of articles and blogs are written about what to wear, or not wear, to a job interview, like this one from Alison Doyle, who says “dress professionally for an interview, even if the work environment is casual.”

I find that incredibly sad. As HR pros we claim to be interested only in applicant’s KSAs – knowledge, skills, and abilities. We supposedly don’t care about their body type, hair and skin color, clothing choices, or sense of style.

But we do. Oh, yes. We do very much.

We do because our rational, intellectual behaviors are often at odds with our emotional reactions. So we use our rational selves to justify the sometimes erroneous assumptions or conclusions reached by our emotional selves. We reject applicants for their “poor judgment” or “lack of business sense”, when we are really faulting someone for their clothes, or the poor fit of their clothes, or their ugly (but comfortable) shoes. Unfortunately, we perpetuate that bias by forcing job candidates to conform, instead of forcing ourselves to change.

Think of it like this: If Mark Zuckerberg walked into your office as a job applicant, wearing his customary hoodie and blue jeans, would you hire him? What about Steve Jobs, who seemed to wear nothing but a black shirt and blue jeans his entire professional life?

You may say yes, because they are public figures whose achievements are known and transcend appearances. But what if it were someone else, a non-public figure  whose resume, phone interview, and other screening devices were good enough to bring him into your office, wearing the same hoodie or black shirt and blue jeans. Would you hire him then?

Be honest now – you probably would reject him.

Isn’t that tragic?

HR pros need to find a way to confront and eliminate their emotional biases about clothes and appearance and concentrate on what really matters – whether the candidate’s KSAs are going to help their company promote its mission. Stop making the candidate conform to your sensibilities in order to land a job.

Otherwise you might miss hiring the next Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. Besides, HR has more important things to do.




4 thoughts on “HR and Job Interview Attire”

  1. I remember once upon a time having a conversation with two hiring managers about a candidate they had just seen. Their fixation? His pointy-toed shoes. Yup.

  2. SHOES! They are one of my real pet peeves. I don’t wear dress pumps or even dress flats because of my problem feet. I can imagine the snickers or silent condemnations I am getting for my Fit Flops or New Balance.

  3. Haha, one of my sons and I were just talking about this last night. He is 29, and has always worked for small businesses. Earlier today (he’s in Australia) he had his first ever interview with an H.R. person at a large corporation. He called the H.R. person and asked her what he should wear and she said business casual. His Mom (me) would have told him to wear a suit and tie.

  4. Thanks for reading, Sue! It was wise of your son to call and ask the HR person, although I would have preferred it if the HR pro had said, “Wear whatever you want because we are only interested in your skills, not your clothes.” Maybe someday!

    That said, I think the HR pro is at least moving in the right direction by saying that business casual was sufficient. :)

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