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Risk Mgmt and Ins Higher Education Scene

To Dress or Not—Is Professional Attire Outdated?

Brenda Powell Wells | July 12, 2019

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A few months ago, a recruiter from a very reputable national employer came to our campus to conduct interviews for both full-time employees and summer interns. We asked for candid feedback on all of our students so that we may help them improve and also determine where we are coming up short in terms of how we are preparing them.

Most of the recruiter's comments were positive, but one student did show up wearing a polo shirt and was fairly "wrinkled" in appearance (i.e., no coat, no tie, etc.). While the recruiter assured us that the lack of professional attire was not the reason for passing over this student for employment, my colleagues and I were absolutely baffled by the incident. Our Professional Leadership Program (PLP) teaches students about the importance of professional attire, right? (Right.) We were absolutely perplexed as to why the student didn't dress appropriately for the interview.

So, we asked him to stop by and visit with us. We gently brought up the interview and asked him in the nicest possible way why he chose not to wear professional dress. His answer was surprisingly simple: "Because I don't own a suit."

Needless to say, I felt about 2 inches tall after that.

The good news was that I had a quick solution for him: our Professional Dress Closet. Stocked by donations from faculty, staff, alumni, and the community, we maintain a supply of professional attire for students who need assistance in that area. It requires a faculty member referral, so I walked him down to the coordinator's office, introduced him, and said, "Please get this young man a suit."

And that's what happened.

The Public Response

My significant other said, "You should put that story on LinkedIn. It'll be good exposure for the college." And I thought, "Sure!" So, I posted on LinkedIn with the intention of bragging about my employer for having the foresight to make professional clothing available to students who otherwise wouldn't have any.

That post got over 360,000 views, and lots of comments, most of which were things like the following.

  • How can I donate?
  • What a great cause!
  • Proud to be an East Carolina University Pirate!

Sadly, I was a bit discouraged by a few of the following comments I received.

  • How dare you judge someone by their clothing!
  • Suits are so outdated. Nobody should wear them anymore.
  • So you tried to force him to fit your mold rather than let him be himself!?!
  • Hey, if he really wanted a suit, he would have bought one already.
  • In my day, when I needed a suit, I walked barefoot in the snow uphill to a thrift store and bought one with a pint of my very own blood.

(Okay, admittedly I embellished that last one a bit, but there really were comments that criticized the young man for not having the means or the fortitude to go find a suit somewhere.)

What started out as an "I have a cool employer that I'm really proud of" post had turned into me being smacked around like a piñata by a few very vocal people. Sometimes I had to consider the sources of the comments. There were a lot of people who had no current employer telling me that their refusal to wear a suit hadn't hindered their career progress at all. I took those with a grain of salt. I confess that I lost my patience with a few.

I tried to explain to some of them that "I don't make the standards. I'm just trying to prepare my students for success in a world that still expects a suit for an interview." I was then told that I was perpetuating an unnecessary standard and being unfair to my students and their sense of individuality.

At that point, I wanted to just delete the post, but the positive posts far outnumbered the unpleasant ones. And, I had lots of people contacting me asking me about how to donate to the closet. As a result of that post, some really Good Samaritans made contact. One sent us over a dozen Brooks Brothers neckties, and another flew his private plane to town to drop off a load of clothing he no longer needed as a semiretired attorney.

Still, I have to wonder—were my critics right? And I wonder in large part because—and here's the truth—I hate wearing suits. I don't like buying them, wearing them, or maintaining them. They are expensive and uncomfortable, and they don't usually breathe. Sometimes, they are quite frumpy. It would suit me (pun intended) fine if we went to an entirely business-casual world.

Most employers tell me that, even though they have adopted a business casual dress code for every day in the office, they want to see students show up for an interview wearing a suit. And, they definitely expect to see suits at a career fair. The students I see from other universities are still wearing suits to professional events, so I have to think that it's still pretty much the right thing to wear when in doubt.


I would love to hear from you on this! Please write to me at [email protected] and let me know your thoughts on the whole suit issue. What is your philosophy? What is your office dress code? Are suits old fashioned and a thing of the past?

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