I went for about seven years without owning a suit. Those were halcyon days, when I was surrounded by people who were intimately familiar with how I worked. I didn’t need to make a first impression, at least not on a regular or meaningful basis.

Then I started working on my own, and I found myself needing to impress people who don’t know me from the next character that will come along and try to sell them something.

I now have three suits in my closet. (My only comfort as an avowed slob is that they are all fairly cheap.) I seldom wear them, thank goodness, but I’m increasingly aware that how I dress does send an unmistakable message to people who don’t know me. I don’t like it, but people do have to rely on visual first impressions when evaluating you on the spot—that’s just how it is.

What do you do, then, when an aspiring admin or developer shows up for an interview with your company wearing khakis, a Hawaiian shirt, and three days’ worth of coarse facial stubble? You go on with the interview, of course, armed with these tips and tricks for managing your fashion bias.

Dress for first impressions
The idea of casual dress is, of course, ingrained in the IT workplace, and that’s a good thing—if people are comfortable, they are going to get more done, and IT pros will seldom face clients who demand well-tailored coders. But I am a little put off by somebody who can’t be bothered to scrub up before coming to ask for my business, or even more so a job. No, I don’t want to discuss the fashionable lapel width for the season; it’s just that wearing appropriate clothing sends the message that this candidate is willing to do a little bit extra to impress me. As a disclaimer, I’ll tell you that I feel the same way about other serious occasions, such as weddings and visitations at funeral homes.

This topic actually is a flash point between many managers and frontline IT pros, who instinctively resent the idea of needing to prove anything beyond their tactical qualifications for a job. This was evidenced in a recent e-mail string on a listserv for TechRepublic staffers and alums. Most of the folks on the list who don’t manage people were next to ravenous in their objections to the idea that dress is even a tertiary issue in evaluating a candidate. However, a couple of alums who have gone on to manage or run small businesses of their own replied that how a candidate looks in an interview does matter, at least a little.

One alum noted that a candidate’s orderly appearance makes him “feel a little better knowing they are organized enough to shave and dress in the mornings.” He smartly added that renewed emphasis on dress and other external trappings of professionalism probably just reflects a cultural correction from the job-hopping dot-com craze, when snowboarding or Quake were likely interview topics.
Never again.

Please understand—I’ve certainly hired folks who showed up for their interviews looking a little rumpled, and in most cases, I’ve been pleased with the results. But in each case, I spent a little extra time exploring their histories in dealing professionally with clients, either internal or external.

Manage your fashion bias
The slob in me is uncomfortable admitting this, but superficial, obvious stuff like professional dress will always play a role in how I evaluate a candidate—I’m not psychic, after all. In fact, I’ve come up with a few simple tricks to make sure that I manage this bias effectively.

Set expectations up front. When you or HR send out an invitation for an interview, include a sentence that says “business casual” or “business attire is appreciated.” Some grouchy managers may think this is tainting the test of whether candidates will take the initiative to clean up on their own, but I don’t think of it as a trick question. Candidates may be coming from a corporate culture where a Mr. Clean-print shirt is considered haute couture; just let them know what’s expected, and you probably won’t have to give a second thought to dress during the interview, which is a good thing.

Don’t let appearance be your first impression of a candidate. First impressions are powerful; they influence everything else you may learn about a candidate during the interview process. So form a rough picture of the candidate before you actually see him or her for the first time. Carefully review his or her cover letter and resume and do a rough list of 10 or so questions you want to ask. Do an initial phone interview, if that doesn’t mess with your company’s policies. This will create a first impression that’s based on qualifications; the candidate’s appearance will be only an influence, not a definition.

Ask a few questions about other situations where professional appearance may be important. If candidates just seem a little informal, either through dress or personal demeanor, be sure to ask about job-related situations that may have demanded a more professional approach. Have they made presentations to clients or the board of directors? What about professional organizations? If they were able to pull off such functions, they most likely have a formal gear they can shift into when necessary, and that’s all you need.

Focus on the tactical. This is a given, but if candidates can prove that they wrote the kernel to an emerging OSS platform, hire them, even if they are wearing a Bullwinkle suit.

Dress appropriately, yourself. I am the worst offender on this count that you can imagine, but if you expect someone to take an interview seriously enough to dress appropriately, you can do the same yourself. I think it’s actually off-putting to candidates to stare across a desk at a slob; the friction can spoil an interview.

I promise to do better on this one. Now that I have three cheap suits, it should be doable.