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The Importance (or Unimportance) of Clothing in Job Interviews


by Clif Boutelle, SIOP Public Relations

Under the Right Conditions, Wearing Non-Conforming Clothing Can Be a Career Boost

It is widely believed that job applicants have a better likelihood of being hired if they wear formal business attire for interviews.

However, that’s not necessarily true. According to a recent study, under certain circumstances employers are willing, and even eager, to accept casually dressed applicants, particularly if their resumes are loaded with experience, leadership ability, authority, and supervisory background.

Janneke Oostrom and Richard Ronay, both assistant professors of social and organizational psychology at the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, examined  whether a nonconforming dress style can lead to positive outcomes when applicants have the status that allows them to risk the social costs of nonconformity.

For purposes of the study, status was based upon perceptions of success or competence as shown through a powerful resume—reflecting more than the requested knowledge, skills and abilities needed for the position. Lower quality resumes had some of those traits, but not all.

Participants included mostly young Dutch students who were given resumes and photographs of applicants for an HR manager’s position. The photos showed applicants in either conforming (suits, ties, etc.) or non-conforming (casual) dress style. Resumes, the only other criteria used to rate applicants, were either high or low quality.

“We were interested in the effects of applicants’ nonconforming behavior on hireability and chose to focus on dress style,” Oostrom said, adding that she and her colleagues plan to look at other nonconforming behaviors, such as long hair, posture, or tattoos in future studies.

The study clearly shows that individuals wanting to push the envelope when it comes to dress are more likely to have a favorable impression with managers and co-workers when they are seen as having a high degree of competence, which was shown in this study by a strong resume. Oostrom explained that the effects of nonconformity vary under certain conditions, particularly when accompanied by the appearance of higher competence, and can actually work to one’s advantage.

“Because they (non-conformers) seem to have greater freedom to act outside the norm—in this case dress style—they may be regarded as more powerful than those who dress more normatively,” she said.

On the other hand, the status-enhancing effects of nonconforming behavior can backfire when accompanied by evidence that such posturing is not matched by cues of actual power.

While the study does show that a nonconforming dress style can lead to positive outcomes when the applicant possesses cues of high social power, Oostrom said there can be other cues in addition to dress that can lead to the same conclusions.

“It’s a fine line,” she admitted, “but one we are actively exploring.”

Oostrom acknowledged that participants’ age could play a role in the results, but did not detect any significant correlations between age and how the candidates were perceived.

“In our next study, which will involve actual recruiters, we should have a stronger test of the effects of age,” she said.

Women were not included in the study because “there are clearer norms regarding dress style for men than women. For men, a dark suit with a tie is the obvious business attire, but for women there is a greater variation: it can be a suit, a dress a skirt or pants with a blouse, and in various colors,” she said.

“So, it is probably true that for most job applicants it will help to behave and dress in a conforming way,” Oostrom said. “But for those who have proven their status, behaving and dressing in a nonconforming way could be the key factor in their further success.”