GiftThere is always much to fret over when you’re prepping for an interview: what will they ask me? How early should I be there? How do I sell myself without being pompous?

For the most part, though, you didn’t have to worry about what to wear. It didn’t matter where you were interviewing or what you were interviewing for: you wore a muted suit or – for the adventurous – a tasteful, professional dress.

The interview dress code isn’t so simple or universal these days. For every major firm expecting jackets, there’s a t-shirt-clad startup founder who shrugs and says “Come casual” when asked what interviewees should wear.

Startup culture is growing in America. As more and more businesses look to Silicon Valley for inspiration, we’re seeing major changes not only in how people work, but also in what they wear to work. (Note: the linked article regrettably ignores women’s workplace fashions; I suggest interested parties check out SFGate’s excellent coverage of that topic.) All of this means that it is becoming harder for candidates to figure out just what they need to wear to an interview. When told to “Come casual,” most of us are entirely unsure of what that means. Do I just take off my tie, or do I show up in shorts and flip-flops?

Of Ties and T-Shirts

The email said “Dress code is business casual.” Sounds specific enough, but not really: in some places, business casual means open up your top button; in other places, it means slacks and a collared shirt. So there I was, puzzling over this email.

I was preparing to interview with Recruiter.com, and I had absolutely no idea what to wear. The email simply said “business casual.” I knew it was a tech company, and tech companies tend to have pretty lax dress codes – but exactly how lax was this particular company? “Business casual” could mean jeans and a hoodie for all I knew.

So I erred on the side of extreme caution: new slacks, dress shoes, and a collared shirt. It felt odd: I’d never attended an interview without a tie before. And so, as I was headed out the door, I was overcome by tradition: I grabbed a tie – something patterned, so as not to seem too formal – and put it on.

The way I saw it, the worst case scenario was that I’d be the only person in a tie at the office. But I figured everyone else would be dressed similarly enough. No reason to worry: interviewees are usually dressed a little more formally than employees.

I soon found out that my version of business casual was far, far more formal than Recruiter.com’s version: picture me, in slacks, shirt, and tie, sitting across from the CEO, who wore a t-shirt and jeans. I felt embarrassingly overdressed.

Luckily, this wasn’t a strike against me (spoiler alert: I got the job). But it easily could have been: my interviewer could have seen my formal approach to casual wear as a sign that I wouldn’t be a good cultural fit. That wasn’t the case: I was simply a candidate trying to figure out what to wear to my interview with no explicit guidance to help me.

Dear Employers: Be Specific

You cannot simply tell candidates to “Come casual” to an interview. All that does is leave people scratching their heads about what constitutes casual.

And, as we saw above, simply saying “business casual” isn’t enough, either: thanks to seismic shifts in the popular concept of proper office attire in the last few years, people have ended up with very different ideas about categories like “business casual.” The old office-wear consensus is gone.

It’s up to employers to be as specific and explicit as possible when it comes to letting candidates know what they should wear to meet you. I’d even suggest going as far as describing what people wear to the office every day. If your employees wear jeans and hoodies, tell your candidates exactly that. If you expect your candidate to be a little more formal than your employees, tell them that, too. Don’t make people play the guessing game.

If you’re not going to do that – if you’re going to keep saying things like “business casual” – then at least have the good sense to realize that candidates are going to show up in a wide variety of outfits. Don’t hold their clothing against them: it’s your fault they don’t know what to wear.



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