Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Dressing for Interviews: An Extended Answer

I've been an on-again-off-again contributor to the "Further Questions" series on Hiring Librarians. The "off-again" part is because sometimes I don't have any experience from which to answer or I'm just too busy, so I'm glad I had a moment when the question that was published yesterday showed up in my email.

The question:
"Which outfit is most appropriate to wear to an interview with your organization? Please pick one for women and one for men, and feel free to provide commentary as to why you chose one over the others (or share how you might change an outfit). Bonus question: Can you share any funny stories about horrifying interview outfits?" (There are options from which respondents chose at that link.)
My answer:
"Since gender isn't a binary, I say you wear whatever you feel is appropriate to the level for which you're applying. In general, dress just a little bit nicer than you think you would dress if you got the job. If you feel unsure, check with a friend/contact who already has a job in the kind of library where you are interviewing. Don't know anyone? Feel free to reach out to me and I'll get you in touch with someone who can help."
I feel the need to expand upon what I wrote there, partially because I'm still angry at the assumption of gender as a binary and partially because of the great discussion that happened on Twitter and other places after that Hiring Librarians post was published.

Here are some things that I know are true:
  • I've talked before about my privilege (or lack thereof), but it's important to note that since I'm caucasian and mostly cisgendered I can bend or even break some of the so called interview outfit fashion rules with relative impunity. YMMV.
  • Performance of gender and performance of race factor into this in a big way.
  • I already have a job in a library, so in some ways it's easy for me to talk.
  • But I am also fat, and fat prejudice is a problem.

Having explained all that, I still stand by my answer. Wear what feels appropriate. Wear an outfit that makes you feel confident but that is also comfortable. I suggest you avoid high heels unless you are super used to walking around in them all day, because you will be walking much more than you expect to walk. I also suggest you dress appropriate for the weather, for the most part. If you don't think you can dress following my advice and still stand a chance at getting a job offer, please consider turning the interview down. Remember you're going to be at this library a lot, and if you won't feel comfortable dressing the way you normally dress while at work, you will not be happy there.  

One last thing... If I'm ever lucky enough to interview you for employment at my library, please rest assured that "it don't matter what you wear, [we're] checking out your savoir faire" and - of course - your qualifications.

(I hope you'll forgive the light hearted videos that are bookending this post. I needed to find a way to laugh about this and thought you might need a laugh, too.)


  1. A few years ago, MPOW interviewed a set of candidates for an open faculty position in my department. One of the candidates still stands out in my mind. This person arrived in a very nice, well-fitting suit, looked very "professional." Yet, at one point, this person's sleeve pulled up just enough to show a tattoo on the arm.

    At MPOW, this wound up being held against this candidate. Not that the candidate had a tattoo, but that the candidate was so fastidious about hiding it all day except for that one little slip! I heard comments about it, interpreting this to mean that the person had an interesting personality behind the veneer of "professionalism" this person performed throughout the whole day, but if that is hidden, what else is being hidden?

    There were more substantial reasons to select a different candidate, of course, but I think it's interesting in contrast with the standard advice about professionalism that this person followed too well.

  2. I recall years ago a male candidate came in without a tie on. The younger members of the search committee (including me back then) were scandalized, the older members had noticed the lack but didn't care. I was struck by the generational divide in the reaction. It also suggests to me that while I may have changed how I react to interview attire over the years, I can't control how members of the search panel see a candidate's attire. The best I can do is ensure that attire not be a part of the discussion since it is not a criterion on which we score the candidate.

    My advice to anyone interviewing at my library would be to say that if you would feel confident talking to the chancellor as you are dressed, then you are fine by me.

  3. As a museum worker studying archives, I wonder what to wear to my first archives internship. My museum job can be quite physical: lifting dusty artifact boxes, cleaning storage areas, moving exhibit cases, etc. So I've gravitated to a pretty casual look--even sneakers on heavy-lifting days. I honestly don't know if the average archivist spends more time "behind the scenes" on ladders and in dusty places, or meeting with chancellors (see previous comment) and assisting members of the public... two different "looks" for me, though both are authentically "me." I'll probably go with the more formal one for my first day.