Further Questions: What Should Candidates Wear?

This week we will finally address the question that plagues interviewees everywhere, “should I wear a suit?”  I really know very little about clothes, so I asked Jill from Librarian Hire Fashion to collaborate with me on this one.  Jill found six great example outfits (I’ve linked the photos to Jill’s sources. Please be sure to click through and check them out):

womens suit

PHOTO A.
By Flickr user Victor1558

Womens relaxed/creative

PHOTO C.
by Sally McGraw of already pretty
Click the photo for a close-up of the shoes!

Womens business casual

PHOTO B.
by Susan of Une femme d’un certain age
Click the photo for more beautiful jackets!

Mens Relaxed/Creative

PHOTO D.
by Flickr user Lucius Kwok

Mens Suit

PHOTO E.
By Flickr user Kazamatsuri

Men business casual

PHOTO F.
by Peter Lappin of Male Pattern Boldness
(He made those pants himself!
Click the photo to see!)

Then we asked people who hire librarians:

Which outfit is most appropriate to wear to an interview with your organization?  Why or why not?  Please pick one for women and one for men.  Bonus question:  Can you share any funny stories about horrifying interview outfits?

I would say that it is better to dress over-smart than risk being under dressed, so I would advise candidates to go for A (for women) and E (for men).  Even if the normal daywear for an organisation is ‘smart casual’ or ‘hip’ it will probably be expected for interviewees to make an effort for an interview.

While working as a recruitment consultant over a 20 year period, I’ve had people turn up for registration interviews in all sorts of outfits – including keeping their coat on (on one occasion with the hood up) throughout the meeting, wearing torn jeans and trainers, and wearing flip flops and BIG jewellery/make-up.  I’ve also had some rather out-there hair styles and some funny smells during that time, ranging from BO to cigarette smoke to strong alcohol breath!

I always give interviewees with an outlandish dress sense or poor personal hygiene some gentle advice on improving their appearance for a ‘real’ job interview – and how they take this has an impact on whether I feel confident to put them forward to my clients in future.

- Nicola Franklin, Director, The Library Career Centre Ltd.

Emilie SmartThis decision for me is more a matter of my taste than appropriateness.  All 6 pictures worked as attire for interviewing at our library.  Here’s my take on all of them…
Picture A for ladies is the least successful interview attire for our library system.  We’re a public library system with a slightly casual dress code and outfit A is a little too “business” and comes off as least approachable.  It IS entirely appropriate for an interview, though, and I would never note it as inappropriate in a real interview situation.  If I were interviewing each of the 3 female candidates, I would not be off-put by any of the outfits — all 3 look pulled together.   Outfit B is an age-appropriate look.  She looks like she’d be great in Reference or Teen Services.   Outfit C has the suit idea going but is stylish too — this person looks capable and approachable.  It’s also my personal favorite, but I’m about that age…
Outfit D works the least well for me in the men’s choices.  What’s with the “scarf as necktie” concept?  Not inappropriate so much as dorky (again, that’s just my taste speaking).  Maybe if he was interviewing for a Teen Services spot…  The problem is that I noticed the scarf, not the overall look, and the vision is not going away.  The other two guys are fine — real neckties are always a safe choice for men — and I’m glad that the guy without the jacket had on long sleeves (again, that is about my taste rather than “appropriateness”).
Advice?  If possible, visit the library beforehand to see what the staff is wearing.  If everyone is in suits, make sure to wear one in the interview (outfits A or E).  If they are in uniforms (i.e., branded golf shirts and khakis) or business casual, you can probably wear outfits B,C,D,F and be OK.  Remember it is always better to err on the side of caution in an interview situation.  When in doubt, suit up!
- Emilie Smart, Division Coordinator of Reference Services & Computer Services at East Baton Rouge Parish Library
Face to face interviews are rare for us, but in a university setting outfits A and E would indicate that the person takes the interview seriously.  The worst I have experienced is a prospect showing up with a bunch of political buttons, even though I agreed with the positions taken.
- J. McRee (Mac) Elrod, Special Libraries Catalouging
Terry Ann LawlerI think all of those outfits are appropriate for our Assistant Librarian positions.  I would lean more towards A for women and D for men Librarian positions.  It never hurts to be the most professionally dressed and I, myself have been dinged for not looking professional enough, when I once forwent the suit jacket.  I will not do that again in the future.

Here are some outfits I’ve actually seen in professional level interviews and found wildly inappropriate:
  • 6 inch heels with a skin tight leopard dress, with a keyhole at the cleavage
  • cargo shorts and flip-flops (on a man)
  • jeans with holes in them
  • jeans with a halter top and belly button showing
  • paint splattered pants and a torn shirt
  • an undershirt only – with sweat stains
  • old, dirty Birkenstocks (both men and women)
  • clouds and clouds of cologne or perfume (YES, this really IS offensive!  skip it!)
  • a cell phone buzzing in the pants or purse the whole time
  • mountains of jewelry.  one woman had 2-3 rings on every finger and at least 15 bracelets per wrist as well as 15-20 necklaces and 5 earrings in each ear.  The clacking was very distracting.  Also, all the bright shiny things are so easy to focus on and lose your train of thought….what was she talking about?
I get it if you have foot issues or you have limited funds for a wardrobe, lots of us do.  However, be creative and work your way around your issues.  Hit up a thrift store for a nice blazer, wear long-ish pants to hide ugly shoes, ask your friends what they think and what you can borrow.  And never, ever, ever wear flip-flops to an interview.  If I think you don’t even take the interview seriously enough to dress nicely, why would I think you are going to take the job seriously?
- Terry Lawler, Assistant Manager and Children’s Librarian, Palo Verde Branch, Phoenix Public Library

For women: A

For men: E

I once interviewed a man who came in in a thick anorak [note: in America, we might be more likely to call an anorak a windbreaker], wouldn’t take it off, smelled, faced the wall and not me, and wouldn’t let go of a tatty plastic bag full of papers he was carrying.

- Sue Hill, Managing Director, Sue Hill Recruitment

Thank you as always to our contributors for their time and insight.  If you’re someone who hires librarians and are interested in participating in this feature, please email me at hiringlibrariansATgmail.com.

A great big thank you to the people who took the photos we used, especially the bloggers: Susan at Une femme d’une certain âge, Sally McGraw at already pretty, and Peter and his pants at Male Pattern Boldness.

Thank you from me to Jill at Librarian Hire Fashion for being a great partner in this post!

This long list of thanks would not be complete without we say: Thank YOU for reading!  Give us your snaps or snipes, by using the comment feature below.

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9 Comments

Filed under Academic, Further Questions, Other Organization or Library Type, Public

9 responses to “Further Questions: What Should Candidates Wear?

  1. I’m pleasantly surprised that no one commented on how open the necklines are on A and C. The amount of neck/chest a woman shows is such a controversial topic, I always try to cover up more, even if it is less flattering. Then the question becomes, is a less attractive first impression balanced out by the details that take longer to notice?

    I also appreciate that Emilie Smart took the time to distinguish between what would work in her library and what is her personal preference. This is the hardest part of dressing for an interview – not knowing if you will be judged on appropriateness or the panel members’ personal tastes.

  2. Thanks Jill! I’m from the South and my mama drilled me from birth about how a “lady” or a “gentleman” should dress for various situations. Her admonitions did leave their mark; however, I also recognize that style and “appropriateness” changes over time. I try very hard not to let my personal taste influence my decisions and I’ve learned over time that sometimes the best person for the job may not be the best dressed person in the interview. Interviews are always a crap shoot and so much can go wrong… Safe is always better than stylish.

  3. I teach library management at Wayne State University and give interview tips to my students as part of the last class. I have a question that my librarian spouse and I have discussed at length without coming to a good conclusion. I attended a library session on dressing successfully for interviews. The male speaker was very sharply dressed, but sharply dressed within an ethnic tradition rather than American middle class white culture. Would this candidate’s dress be well received or not in an interview situation?

    • What an interesting question! It seems like it would depend on the culture/location of the institution – if the hiring committee were able to recognize the formality of non-American clothing, and if the committee were open to ethnic diversity. It would be hard to find a truthful answer to this, because of implicit bias, and because it would be damaging for an institution to admit to prejudice against non-whites and/or other cultures, particularly in a hiring situation.
      This is also making me realize that when I think of “A Hiring Committee”, the picture in my head is a bunch of white people, in blazers and sweaters. It’s entirely possible that the hiring committee might already include people who don’t look or dress this way.
      Teresa Neely, who did a guest post in late June and has also authored/edited some texts addressing issues surrounding librarians of color, will be doing another guest post in a few months to answer reader questions about hiring and librarians of color (email me if you have questions). I’m going to add this one to the list.

      • our hiring committees are required by our City to have diversity in race and sex. i cannot imagine that ANY ethnic or non-traditionally american dress would be considered inappropriate unless it showed a whole lotta skin :)

  4. Scott Lanning

    I’ve had the opportunity to teach a little workshop on interviewing from both sides of the table where I give advice based on my experiences as both the interviewer and interviewee. I think you want to be remembered for your answers to the questions, and not the clothes you wore. Neutral is best. For men, that’s a suit. Women have a little more leeway.

    I think ethnic clothing at an interview should be fine. It does make a statement, however. So I think you’d need to be well prepared for the interview and really do a good job in order not to be remembered as the person who wore ethnic clothing.

  5. If you scroll through this tumblr, http://ofanotherfashion.tumblr.com/, there are historical photos of non-white librarians. All I can say is, I wish I could look half as good as they do!

  6. Sullivan Peggy

    GOOD STUFF HERE! I WAS RECENTLY REMINDED BY A FORMER STUDENT THAT SHE FAILED TO GET A JOB AT A MAJOR PUBLIC LIBRARY ALMOST 40 YEARS AGO BECAUSE SHE WORE A BRAND NEW PANTSUIT, AND THE CULTURE OF THE LIBRARY DID NOT ALLOW FOR PANTS ON WOMEN. I HAD FORGOTTEN THE INCIDENT, BUT I HAD CALLED THE LIBRARY AFTER HER INTERVIEW AND LEARNED THAT WAS THE REASON THEY DID NOT SELECT HER. THEIR LOSS WAS HER GAIN, OF COURSE!
    AS FOR MEN AND SUITS — I ALSO REMEMBER A YOUNG MAN WHO INTERVIEWED AT THE CHICAGO PUBLIC LIBRARY WHEN I WORKED THERE IN THE 1970S. HE WAS FAIRLY CASUALLY DRESSED, BUT CLEARLY HAD A LOT OF PROMISE. ONE OF THE INTERVIEWERS SUGGESTED HE WEAR A SUIT WHEN HE CAME FOR A SECOND INTERVIEW — AND I THINK HE CAME IN ONE OF HIS FATHER’S SUITS — TOO BIG FOR HIM, DOUBLE-BREASTED, CLEARLY OF SOME OBSCURE OLD STYLE AND TEXTURE, BUT HIS EFFORT WAS SO TOUCHING, IT HELPED HIM GET THE JOB.
    THE WORST THING IS PROBABLY TO WEAR SOMETHING THAT IS SO UNLIKE WHAT ONE USUALLY WEARS THAT THE INTERVIEWEE JUST DOES NOT FEEL OR LOOK COMFORTABLE. NEW SHOES, LOW-CUT NECKLINES, ETC., CAN DO THAT. I, TOO, ONCE SAT IN ON THE INTERVIEW OF A MAN WHO WAS VERY ACTIVE IN PARTISAN POLITICS, AS HIS RESUME CLEARLY SHOWED. HE WORE A PARTY SYMBOL TO PROVE IT. WHEN ASKED ABOUT THAT, HE SAID HE NEVER LET HIS LOYALTY TO PARTY INTERFERE WITH HIS LIBRARY CAREER AND NEVER WORE SUCH SYMBOLS TO WORK. THEN WHY WEAR THEM TO AN INTERVIEW, ASKED ONE OF THE INTERVIEWERS? HE APPEARED TO BE STUMPED!

  7. Pingback: Further Questions Questions | Hiring Librarians

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