Monday, June 30, 2008

On An Interview

A recent series of articles by “On Style” columnist Christina Binkley of the Wall Street Journal brought Ms. Binkley into contact with several executive recruiters (a.k.a. “head hunters”) and personnel officers of major corporations and law firms throughout New York City and Washington, D.C. During her interviews with these experts, the author discovered that even 30 years after the publication of John T. Molloy’s ground-breaking how-to “Dress For Success”,
the problem of personal appearance still presents a minefield for many movers-and-shakers in the corporate world. If decision-makers operating in the rarefied atmospheres of Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue have difficulty determining which tie to wear, or whether pumps or sandals would be more appropriate, then how can mere mortals here in the Sunshine State be expected to traverse successfully such an esoteric labyrinth?

To shed some light on this topic, I decided to do a little research of my own. First, I compiled a brief questionnaire, posing such questions as (1) “When an applicant arrives for the interview, do you think he or she is dressed appropriately?” (2) “What is the applicant’s body language telling you?” and (3) “What differences do you perceive among the ‘Traditionalists’, ‘Baby-Boomers’, ‘Generation Xers’, and ‘Millennials’?”

Then, I passed my questionnaire to several senior level executives of various industries, including some Florida-based entities as well as nationally recognized firms. These individuals include representatives of the healthcare, construction, insurance, employment, and social welfare fields. I asked them to respond to the questionnaire on the basis of their observations
in the course of performing their professional duties. I was surprised by some of their answers. Candid comments regarding appropriate dress among employment applicants included, “The younger generation does not understand the rules, or chooses to ignore them. These concepts
(of appropriate attire in the workplace) often are lost on the younger applicants.”

Before heaping too much opprobrium on the “younger generation”, we would do well to recall that “Dress For Success” is a phrase that has been around longer than they have! It has become so thoroughly ensconced in the idiom that we often forget what a fundamental concept it represents: first impressions really do matter, and one’s appearance really can be a determining factor in how one is perceived by colleagues, clients, and members of Management.

There seems to be a great deal of confusion regarding the definition of “appropriate dress” for the workplace. Among my survey’s respondents, the “older generation” seems to be slightly more in tune with this concept, apparently being willing to forgo a certain level of personal comfort in exchange for a higher salary, whereas younger applicants seem to think that “comfort is everything”. Apparently, it all depends on one’s perspective ... and the salary range!

When asked to share their pet peeves, the survey respondents were equally outspoken. Jacqueline Glover, Office Manager at Workman Commercial Construction, replied, “Business Casual has taken over. People want to draw outside the lines and not follow the rules.” Andrew Flick, an Advisor at Northwestern Mutual Insurance, indicated that he dislikes “ties that are too short, clothing that is wrinkled or ill-fitting, and shirts that are too blousy.” An executive from the healthcare industry (who asked not to be named) replied, “My pet peeves include clothing that is too casual or too tight-fitting. Big jewelry is also a distraction.” Other respondents stated that they are put off by visible tattoos, “cleavage”, sandals (rather than shoes), and blouses that are not tucked in.

When asked to comment on verbal versus non-verbal communication, respondents of the survey provided some very revealing data. Many applicants, it seems, are unaware of how much information they are communicating about themselves, without ever uttering a word! Susan H. Zingaro, Executive Vice President for Sales and Recruiting at FirstPRO, Inc. (an executive search firm), commented, “Body language is the key indicator as to how interested a person is in a particular job.” It can directly affect the impression that the applicant makes on the interviewer. “Good eye contact,” according to Ms. Zingaro, “a firm handshake, and good posture all are very important during the interview process.” Mr. Flick of Northwestern Mutual laments, “A lot of times, they (applicants) are unprofessional. They seem not to know the importance of it.” And, according to Paul Ryan, Senior Account Executive at David Wood Personnel, “Most applicants do not have their thoughts in order for the interview.” Their discomfort is telegraphed by their body language: I am nervous. How quickly can we get this over with? On the other hand, many applicants need to be aware of their verbal communication skills, as well. Says Ms. Glover of Workman Commercial, “Often, they (applicants) are so eager to impress that they will give a long-winded answer that does not even address the question!”

In compiling questions for my survey, I thought it might be helpful to include one about the impression that applicants may be making on the Receptionist. Ms. Glover states, “She sizes them up the instant they walk through the door! Nine times out of ten, she knows what the company is looking for, and ~ within 15 seconds ~ she knows whether or not the interviewee has ‘it’.” Reinforcing this point, Ms. Zingaro of FirstPRO, says, “This has always been important. If the candidate treats the Receptionist professionally and with respect, then his or her behavior should be consistent in the new job.”

Overall, how are applicants throughout the employment spectrum are perceived? Well, it depends on whom you ask. One survey respondent in the social welfare field said, “Boomers typically are seeking their ‘next’ career or a move up from their former position. Traditionalists have longer stints at previous jobs and now are looking for ‘meaningful’ work. ‘Generation Xers’ want flexible work schedules due to family needs and the pursuit of their education. ‘Millennials’ don’t want to have to work too hard, and they tend to leave their jobs more frequently for ‘greener grass’.” Ms. Glover wrote, “Traditionalists and Boomers know the game and play it very well. I think ‘Generation Xers’ expect that their degrees, skills, and personality will be sufficient to get them by. They don’t seem to realize that ~ while those things may help them to keep the job ~ as an applicant, they first must get through the door (for the interview). One cannot put the cart before the horse. And, ‘Millennials’ know the rules, but they want to modernize things, and put their own special spin on it.” Finally, Ms. Zingaro avows, “Representatives of the ‘X’ and ‘Millennial’ generations often have the opinion that they don’t have to work so hard, that they are entitled to everything because they have a degree. They seem much less generous than members of the older generations.”

While some of the above comments may seem to spell doom and gloom for the future of the free world, let us not despair! After all, everyone is young, once. With a little education and encouragement, even these unruly “young ’uns” can be shown the importance of appearance and image awareness. If you perceive a need for that sort of assistance or training at your company, just have your Human Resources Department contact me, Elaine Simmons, at