I’ve probably interviewed over a thousand people in the last 11 years and prior as a hiring manager, before getting into executive recruiting. (That’s less than 2 a week and many weeks, I might average over 5 so I think it’s a safe guess for this story.) It never ceases to amaze me how seemingly great candidates who are very smart, and have reached the executive level, or at least the senior part of middle management (that’s pretty concise) make a poor first impression when the interview starts. And, without trying to be sexist, men, the women have us beat here. They invariably know how to dress and how to position themselves properly in the chair or on our couch. They do however, join the men in missing on other points, which I’ll mention later.

Before I get too far down the road, I want to state the point I’m trying to make with this article: the first impression is still important and might determine whether or not you go to the next round in an interview. If you’re not the right candidate anyway, you can look like a million bucks and you still won’t be seeing our client. However, if you do have what it takes for the job, don’t leave any doubt in our minds about your judgment because you happened to make some bush league mistakes on appearance.

I can see it now: I’m walking down the hall of our head office in Irvine, California and look into one of our three meeting rooms to see who awaits me. I might see someone slumped over on the couch, either looking too at ease, or too eager. I see socks that are too short and show a lot of their legs, if they’re men. I see rubber soled shoes or loafers that look like they just got off the golf course and changed into their comfy shoes.

Once I turn the corner into the room, I can be greeted with a candidate who isn’t dressed properly for a senior executive interview. We’re still a suit and tie firm most days, and we like to see someone that does their homework to find out the appropriate dress for the interview. They take it serious enough to do at least that little step, and not lose points with us. I know this one will get some comments, so I’ll expand on this thought later. In a rare instance, I’ll see a woman with a low cut blouse or too short skirt which makes her uncomfortable on our couch or even in one of our firm chairs. As many guys would probably agree, this can be very distracting, although I do have to admit, it only happens a few times a year.

Okay guys, what’s with the Looney Toons or golf-themed ties? I understand that it might have been a gift from your kids on Father’s Day, or it might be a lucky tie for you, but leave it home for an interview – it will only take away points. For that matter, guys seem to have missed out on the style gene way more often than women. In fact, I can hardly remember a woman that has come in for an interview and not looked great. Guys however, think it’s okay to pull out that 20 year old suit that hasn’t been worn since the tech world went casual (which by the way, senior execs in tech companies do have to wear suits sometimes, so our clients might like to see how well you do it). Or the shirt, that they bought 10 years ago that no longer fits well, has the button down collar that bundles up when buttoned at the top button, and just doesn’t look sharp.

How about those shoes? They say you can tell a lot about a person based on their shoes. Scuffed up, casual, rubber soled don’t shout “outstanding candidate” to me. I know some of the high end shoe manufacturers have come out with rubber soled dress shoes which are great for working trade shows, however, when in a meeting where you’re likely to cross your legs, this is one place where it’s safer to leave out all doubt about you as a candidate. Go with leather!! In fact, for me, a well shined lace up pair of shoes for men never gives any doubt. (Someone told me their personal belief long ago so I’m biased here – “loafers are for loafing, and therefore people that loaf”.)

Again, after the first few minutes, we’re looking beyond all this stuff to see how you can deliver success in the position we’re recruiting for our client. However, at the end of the interview, when we go back to our objective review of the meeting, we’ll include all this stuff in our analysis, and things that cost you points might keep you out of the next round, when you could have been considered if you had just given this more thought.

Hint 1: go to Nordstrom’s and have someone pick out the right suit, right shirt, right tie, or for women, the right business suit and blouse. You won’t regret it. If Nordstrom’s is out of your budget at the moment, go there to browse, and then you can always hit one of the lower priced stores to get the right assortment for you. Stay with safe choices: dark suit for both men and women, white or light blue shirt or blouse, but white is preferable in an interview, and power tie for men – red or blue probably won’t get you in trouble.

Hint 2: Your objective with your interview clothes is to make a statement that you’re a credible candidate. Those that have mastered the art of “trying” to gain credibility through dress are our very senior politicians, generally those in the President’s staff, including the current and most prior Presidents, and the national (not local) news anchors. Watch how they dress and mimic them and you’ll do just fine. (Think Wolf Blitzer, John King, Brian Williams, VP Biden, President Obama, Katie Couric, etc.)

Does anyone have a story they’d like to share about this topic? If so, please feel free to comment, even if you don’t agree with me. I’d like to get as many viewpoints on this topic as possible.

In a future story, I’ll give my opinion on the importance of casual versus business dress, good posture, doing your homework on both our firm and the client, and building rapport with the interviewer, both at the search firm, and at the client company, and how some people do this very well, and others, well, you know…