A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

dressing well is the best revenge

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 17, 2008

My friend S, a smart dresser herself and a soon-to-be major power in the Dubai finance world, forwarded a very useful Wall Street Journal article on the importance of dressing professionally (and determining what that means for different industries) when job-hunting. It seems like a no-brainer – but even if you dress impeccably, Christina Binkley’s article is a good refresher.

Smart dressing involves sending subliminal messages, particularly when a serious job is at stake. This is something that even high-ranking business leaders can underestimate.

In commerce, unlike in Hollywood, fashion plays a largely uncredited role. Business schools train graduates to shine their shoes for an interview. But once established, apart from avoiding the obvious gaffe — a coffee-stained shirt or a visible rhinestone bra strap — many executives spend little time contemplating what to wear to a job interview. At their peril.

I recently suggested to Dorothy Waldt, a New York executive recruiter, that CEOs and other high-level job candidates must know what to wear by that stage in their careers. “You’d think!” she said when she had stopped laughing.

“People don’t understand the messages that their clothes send,” says Ms. Waldt, a recruiter with CTPartners. Women sometimes don’t realize how often a tight shirt or a low neckline comes across as seductive. People who meet them are likely to assume the sexual innuendo is intentional. It’s harder for men to goof, but they do — for instance, by being sloppy with untucked or wrinkled shirts or wearing beeping sports watches to staid business events. Sagging socks, dangling earrings and obvious designer logos all send messages that register with the people on the other side of the table.

To complicate matters, things aren’t as cut-and-dried as they were in the days of strict blue-collar and white-collar work uniforms. Following the old dress-for-success rules, with ties and starched white shirts, would create suspicion and awkwardness at Google’s dressed-down headquarters today. Executive job seekers have to study more than the balance sheet these days — they have to suss out a company’s fashion ethos. Candidates may want to call the hiring manager’s assistant or ask a recruiter about the appropriate look before they show up for the interview.

Ms. Waldt recalls a candidate sent to interview with a retailer that had a casual culture. Unfortunately for him, he dressed up. “The clothes that he was wearing were so polar-opposite of what the company did that they thought he just didn’t get them at all,” says Ms. Waldt. They never bothered to interview him. “He sat in a holding pen all day and flew home.”

Possibly, that job candidate wouldn’t have wanted to work at a company that dismissed him so summarily. Yet boards of directors routinely size up executive-level candidates by inspecting the clues in their clothes. Hal Reiter, an executive recruiter and chairman and chief executive of Herbert Mines Associates, recalls meeting with a CEO candidate for a mainstream retailer.

The man, chief financial officer of a major big-box retailer, showed up in a navy-blue necktie with a gold circular symbol surrounded by what looked like leaves and red blotches. Upon closer inspection, Mr. Reiter discovered that the red was blood dripping from a crown of thorns. The tie isn’t the main reason he didn’t get the job, but the distractingly graphic religious imagery didn’t help.

Mr. Reiter, who leans toward Brioni suits himself, rails about “horrible footwear — unshined, rubber soles, acrylic socks” that he sees frequently. He isn’t shy about dressing people down, according to Larry McClure, senior vice president of human resources for Liz Claiborne Inc., who once hired Mr. Reiter to locate a senior-level recruit. In the car on their way to the interview in Newark, N.J., the executive recruiter glanced at Mr. McClure’s feet, which were ensconced in worn, pilled socks. “I gotta help you out here,” Mr. Reiter announced, according to both men. “You need some better socks. They’re horrible.”

“I guess I never figured that people would look at my socks,” says Mr. McClure, who has since invested in new ones, as well as Donald Pliner shoes.

Mr. Reiter’s parting shot for aspiring executives at businesses with a formal ethos: “It takes $1,000 to buy a suit that looks good.” And when you wear it, “you can’t look like it’s the first time, either.”

For ideas on looking authoritative but approachable, look at politicians — the most practiced job candidates of all — who are savvy at flashing messages with their clothing. In the ultimate employment interview, for U.S. President, Hillary Clinton wore a looped red scarf in New Hampshire earlier this week that looked decisive and framed her face, while her dark suit hit that nice-not-loud note that signals that we’re supposed to be paying attention to her brain, not her designer.

(You can read the rest of the article here.)

Perhaps the most useful part is the checklist that accompanies the article:

[chart]

I have an executive mentality already – bring on the white wool suits!

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