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Risk Mgmt and Ins Higher Education Scene

A Follow Up: Dressing Professionally

Brenda Powell Wells | April 3, 2020

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Little boy wearing a big man's business suit

Last year I wrote a commentary, "To Dress or Not—Is Professional Attire Outdated?," on whether or not students should be expected to dress professionally for interviews and career fairs. I asked for feedback and encouraged responses. I'm pleased to say I got a lot of thoughtful responses from a wide range of readers. Executives, claims adjusters, independent agents, corporate trainers, and many others chimed in.

Some people still believe in the suit for an interview because it's the best course of action. Amy 1 notes that "you will always need to be professional. Being professional still includes being more formal, unless told otherwise by dress code. You cannot redo a first impression." Laura agrees by noting that "it only takes 7 seconds to make a first impression."

Mack cut right to the chase: "If applying for a professional position, dress professionally or risk being excluded from the pool. That means a suit." Randy agrees, "My experience has been that showing up to job interviews in a suit and tie may be the difference that gets you the job over the other candidates."

Terry and I are on the same page in terms of believing that suits are antiquated. He says, "My personal opinion on the matter is that suits are ridiculous and outdated. Most parts of suits serve no function. When you wear a suit, you are no smarter, can work no harder, and have no other additional special abilities, except the ability to not be as free to move (and potentially the ability to be too hot—or cold)."

Social Dilemma

Terry also brings up an interesting point that I had not thought of where suits are concerned. As suits are totally unrelated to abilities and work ethic, expecting them results in a bit of class warfare between those who can afford a suit and those who cannot. He goes on to say that, in spite of his feelings, his employees are expected to wear suits when the client expects them to. Terry's office expects employees to dress for the client they are meeting with. If the client will wear a suit, then a suit is the appropriate attire for the employee. If the client will be in business casual, business casual is the proper choice of attire.

I also enjoyed Rick's comments about men's neckties, which I've honestly never understood. I've always felt sorry for men for having to wear those things! Rick says, "The pet peeve for me was always ties. The fashion need to have a piece of clothing strangled tightly around one's neck has always alluded me."

Earl had what I thought was a great perspective on suits. "It definitely does seem like a double standard, since we expect them [prospective employees] to interview in a suit, then show up on the first day of work dressed in business casual attire. I would hate to go back to the days where I had to put a button-down shirt and tie on every day to come work in an office where I don't see any clients. The business casual attire is very freeing and is also much less expensive to purchase and to maintain."

Earl goes on to say that "the idea of requiring suits for interviews will not change until there is a change in academia that says it's ok to attend an interview in business casual attire." While it would suit (pun intended) me fine to free every one of my students from the dreaded interview suit, I also wouldn't want to be responsible for offending an employer who expected them to show up in a suit!

Will had a more traditional viewpoint on the subject, as he said, "Dressing in a suit shows you care about your appearance as a professional and shows respect to those you are meeting face to face. And people like being respected. Putting aside one's own comfort to respect new or existing customers, or a potential employer, requires proper dress; not just in interviews but in daily person-to-person interactions."

Pat tells me, "Arrive in the professional dress as dictated by the business environment." Rick says, "I believe that you have to cater to the generation coming to keep your company relevant, and if suits aren't a part of that, so be it." In other words, "Dress for Your Day," which is the code many offices in insurance and risk management have gone to. If you're sitting behind the desk all day and not meeting with outsiders, then jeans are fine. If you're meeting with blue-collar clients, business casual is fine. And, of course, if you're meeting with someone of executive stature, a suit is called for.

Jan believes that "wearing a suit, skirt, dress, or dress pants—whatever the appropriate style is for the individual—shows a level of awareness, care, and seriousness that employers look for. Once they see it, they can ignore it and move on to more substantive inquiries, but if they don't see it, they don't get past its absence." In other words, the suit is your ticket into the rest of the interview process. If you don't wear one? You probably won't get very far.

Jan also eloquently addressed my critics who thought it was unfair of me to offer the young man a suit last year. What many of them told me was that candidates "should" be judged by their skills and competencies, rather than their attire. Jan simply says, "Every time I hear a should, I recall something I read in college: NOBODY, but NOBODY, is required to adhere to your version of should." And that reminds me of my eighth grade social studies teacher, Mrs. Kibler, who simply said, "Who told you life was fair?"

The Consensus

Most of the responses I got to the commentary I wrote last year had approximately the same general thoughts—suits are no fun, but they are a necessary evil of interviewing. Katie feels that eliminating someone from consideration for a job because they did not wear appropriate clothing to the interview is a form of unfair prejudice. As she notes, there are many valid reasons why someone may not wear a suit to an interview. For me, the most notable one is they simply cannot afford it. Again, my employer has solved that problem by eliminating the need to purchase a suit. If a student does not have a suit, we make sure he or she gets one. I agree with Katie—I think a wise employer will look for substance over style in an interview. Sadly, as most everyone else who wrote to me noted, it is a harsh reality that those who do not have a suit will be at a disadvantage when it comes to interviews.

Carol says, "While dress can be an important element in making a determined decision, sometimes the person applying for a position may not be in a position to own the appropriate business attire due to unemployment, a recent divorce requiring re-employment after a lapse, coming right out of school, or other extenuating circumstances. I believe we need to focus on competencies." And I love her idea that "perhaps a simple paragraph included in the confirmation for an interview stating the company's attire policy" would be a really smart idea. That was a real "duh" moment for me. How hard would it be for someone to add to the confirmation email, "We look forward to seeing you at your interview on Thursday, where business professional attire is appreciated."

Well, based on your responses to my commentary last year, it looks like the risk management and insurance industry isn't quite ready to give up suits just yet. It sounds to me like a lot of people secretly want suits to go away, but they aren't going to rock the boat either. And I suppose that's where I am in this situation. All I really care about is making sure my students have the most successful interviews they possibly can. If that means a suit (and apparently it does), then I'll keep encouraging them to wear one for interviews.

Now, don't ask me what I'm wearing as I write this. Our campus is shut down due to coronavirus, so I'm working from home. The dress code here is "Dress for Your Day," which today means a cantankerous political T-shirt and yoga pants. Casa de Wells is largely a "suit-free" zone.

I would love to hear from you! Please write to me at [email protected].

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