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updated: 10/28/2012 7:02 AM

Career Coach: Dressing for successful job interviews

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By Jeffrey Kudisch, Special to The Washington Post

I have a reputation around here for never wearing brown shoes. The students think I hate them. The truth is, I have seen the damage brown shoes can do. A recruiter who once came through to interview students actually told me he didn't hire a candidate because the student wore brown shoes with a navy suit -- a fashion decision that would never jibe with the corporate culture at the recruiter's company.

Aside from the rules of brown shoes (for the record, I do own a pair of brown shoes, and according to many fashion gurus, brown with a navy suit can work if the brown is dark), the lesson here is when dressing for job interviews, it is critical to mirror the style of the organization for which you are interviewing. Conservative dress is usually safe.

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We recently took a busload of 65 MBA and master of science students to Macy's near College Park. We had the run of the place before the Wheaton store opened. Thanks to the Macy's team, our students got some great what-to-wear pointers and showed off fashions to their peers with an escalator "runway" show. Then they did some shopping. This was all part of their overall preparation as they gear up for upcoming interviews. Wardrobe choice is a critical component of every jobseeker's preparation.

What's 'in' for job interviews

Do some prep work: Try to find out the culture and dress of the organization where you'll be interviewing. Although I don't recommend calling the human resources department to ask if people wear brown shoes at the company, try working your network for a connection who already works there or might know. If you feel comfortable, ask what is appropriate.

Be conservative: Err on the side of caution if you're not sure of the organization's dress code. Skip the trendy fashion choices and stick to the classics: a suit, a tie (for men), simple jewelry, understated colors.

When in doubt, go dark: In general, a black or gray suit is most appropriate for a job interview.

Seek fashion advice: Always run your planned interview outfit by a trusted friend, your spouse or significant other. It helps to get a second opinion on whether something is appropriate.

What not to wear

Open-toed shoes: Though it's an open debate whether open-toed shoes are appropriate office attire (many people are proponents these days), you never know what side your interviewers will take, so play it safe and go for your conservative, closed-toe heels.

Heavy scents: Stay away from strong perfumes or colognes for your interview. And certainly be sure you don't give off other odors. Skip the garlicky lunch before your interview. Make sure you smell fresh and clean.

A five-o'clock shadow: In keeping with the conservative theme, be sure you are well-groomed. A clean-shaven face or neatly trimmed facial hair is best.

Messy hair or unkempt fingernails: A simple, neat hairstyle and well-manicured nails won't distract during your interview. This is critical for both women and men.

Visible tattoos and piercings: While they might show your personality, piercings and tattoos might negatively influence your interviewer. Err on the side of caution and cover up or remove your flair.

Research suggests that most interviewers arrive at impressions of job candidates during the first few minutes. Research also suggests that a job applicant's appearance influences recruiters' interview ratings of job applicants. So what are you waiting for? Start out on the right foot by looking good and dressing well.

• Jeffrey Kudisch is managing director of the Office of Career Services at the Robert H. Smith School of Business and a faculty expert in leadership, negotiations and human capital management. He has a Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology and he co-founded Personnel Assessment Systems, a human resource consulting firm specializing in executive assessment and leadership development.

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