Why We Should Banish Business Suits for Interviews

by Naomi House, MLIS

Why We Should Banish Business Suits for Interviews

naomi house rutgers 4.2015When I graduated from high school back in 1995 I had no idea just how different college was going to be, especially the costs.  We were rural and poor to lower middle class growing up, though lower middle class might be a stretch.  I had no money of my own, never did, and we had grown up with free or reduced price school lunches.  I may have been seen 3 movies in total at theatres my entire life by that point (Black Beauty and Wayne’s World are the two I remember), but I was heading off to Film School at RIT thanks to a love of film that the free videos from our local libraries instilled in me.  So when I got to film school and had to pay for 16 mm film and processing I was often stretched to any semblance of a max I had.  Thankfully, first year students mostly worked with found footage and editing so I scraped by, but had to leave after a year. I simply could not afford it regardless of financial aid.

One of my friends was attending the local community college for an administrative assistant /  business degree and I was shocked to find out that her Intro class required them all to present their final presentations wearing business suits!  I cannot underline enough just how shocking this was to me, because, I wondered how on Earth would she find the money to buy one?  We earned minimum wage as student workers, and even then, she’d have to drive to a mall to buy a suit, so that was added cost.  We had a thrift shop in town and though that clad me well within my budget in flannel shirts and peasant skirts, a women’s business suit would have been impossible to find there. I literally could not believe the audacity of the request – the financial burden it placed on poor, rural community college students seems irresponsible and cruel.  After all financial aid would not cover it.

Where the hell was she supposed to get the money?

Over the years I have served on many search committees and I was as guilty as many others in our field of expecting most candidates for most positions to come “properly” attired in a business suit (shudders at the word, properly).  It wasn’t until I left our field over a year and a half ago that I began to question my presumptions and their impact on interview candidates. Why do we require potential co-workers to wear an outfit they will not once wear on the job? Sure there are some jobs in our field that require daily or semi-regular suit donning, those are not the positions I am talking about.  I am talking about the vast majority of library staff, LIS and librarians who never wear a suit at all on the job.

Why do we require them to be suited up for an interview?

I am not going to try and answer either why we do it or where we expect people to get the money – both attitudes presuppose a level of wealth, class and cultural assimilation we should no longer be acting on in this day and age. It is inexcusable but the good news is that libraries and information centers are primed to lead a major revolution across the board in interview culture. After all we are THE information professionals for many organizations and we CAN be leaders in this proposed sea change!

So what are the main concerns with the whole idea of requiring business suits to interview?

COSTS We are not a well compensated field and those unemployed are often in a financial position that makes budgeting every dollar the difference between paying a bill or not, or having nutritious food or not. There may be travel expenses, etc to consider as well. By adding a cost that does nothing to get you better qualified candidates you are requiring a waste of someone else’s resources. This is inexcusable.

TIME: Finding a suit that fits takes a great deal of time no matter where you live, even if you have a large budget. Time is another cost. Wasting candidate’s time purchasing new clothes they will only use for interviews is inexcusable.

CLASS: For me presumptions of this specific type of propriety and correctness that the business suit as standard interview outfit implies comes from a place that has class implications. Like accents and speech patterns, hair styles etc, this is another way we reward those who come from very white, CIS gendered and wealthy or middle class backgrounds. My own life in poverty shows how daunting these assumptions can be regardless of someone’s qualifications.

CULTURE: Why not a shawal kamis? Why do we expect a level of cultural appropriation that job candidates might not feel comfortable with? Why normalize this into the process of getting a job when it serves none of us, especially in a field that needs to better represent its communities? 

GENDER: As a cis gendered woman who uses she/her/hers I have a much easier time meeting expectations of the interview outfit because women are presumed to be able to show up in a pant suit or skirt suit which places a much greater burden on those who are not cis gendered women. This also means that as a candidate I have more power to meet expectations, and this culture is something we as hiring committees should not be creating – giving undue power to some.

WORK APPROPRIATENESS: Whatever the position requires as far as work outfits go, then THAT and only THAT should be the requirement for the interview (except if there is a work issued uniform, which, obviously they would be unable to own yet). We are a highly specialized field and conservators, archivists, catalogers, reference librarians, shelvers, etc all require different work-wear.

naomi house npr

The argument I have heard over and over again from the pro-business suit lobby is that wearing a business suit to an interview shows respect for the interview process. No, it shows assimilation to misplaced and dangerous ‘ideals’. It shows a disregard for candidate’s resources, both time and money. Um, how does a matching jacket and pant outfit cut in such a way as to drive up the price show respect? And more importantly how is that presumption of a specific dress code as a sign of ‘respect’ so vital to the process? It isn’t Job hunters go through ridiculous hoops and extremes, waste tons of their valuable time on long, drawn out, often pointless cover letters, applications and tailored resumes, and all for what? Do we really get better colleagues out of this horrible process? Really?  And if we do consider those who have the money to spend or go deep in debt to match our ridiculous expectations, that says more about us and our own prejudices than it does about their ability to do the job.

The change must come from hiring committees!

It MUST! But if I ever interview for a job again, I will ask the hiring committee about interview attire and explain (and link to this) why I will be wearing a dress instead. Most candidates are not in a position like I am to risk it, so ultimately if this is to change it begins with individual hiring committees. If you have a dress code or set of expectations for interviews be clear with candidates up front when you offer them an interview! Don’t make it a guessing game. And finally really think about what you require as it fits into my concerns above.

Within our field we CAN make change that spills over into other fields as far as the interview process goes. This is a small step, but a VERY vital one. Change must start within libraries, not with candidates, so make a vow to yourself today to at the very least address this if you serve on a search committee in the future!

* changed conservationists to conservators (thanks Suzy)

Naomi House

Naomi House, MLIS, is the founder and publisher of the popular webzine and jobs list INALJ.com (formerly I Need a Library Job). Founded in October 2010 with the assistance of her fellow Rutgers classmate, Elizabeth Leonard, INALJ’s social media presence has grown to include Facebook (retired in 2016), Twitter and a LinkedIn group, in addition to the interviews, articles and jobs found on INALJ.com. INALJ has had over 18 Million page views and helped thousands of librarians and LIS folk find employment! Through grassroots marketing, word of mouth and a real focus on exploring unconventional resources for job leads, INALJ grew from a subscription base of 20 friends to a website with over 500,000 visits in a month. Naomi believes that well-sourced quantity is quality in this narrow job market and INALJ reflects this many new jobs published daily. She has also written for the 2011, 2012 & 2013 LexisNexis Government Info Pro. She presents whenever she can, most recently thrice at the American Library Association's Annual Conference as well as breakout talk presenter at OCLC EMEA in Cape Town, South Africa and as a keynote speaker at the Virginia Library Association annual meeting, at the National Press Club, McGill University, the University of the Emirates, Dubai, MLIS program and the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She was a 2013 Library Journal Mover & Shaker and has served on the University of Maryland iSchool Board from 2014-2017. Naomi was a Reference, Marketing and Acquisitions Librarian for a contractor at a federal library outside Washington, DC, and has relocated to being nomadic. She runs her husband’s moving labor website, KhanMoving.com, fixes and sells old houses and assists her husband cooking delicious Pakistani food as well. She has heard of spare time but hasn’t encountered it lately. She pronounces INALJ as eye-na-elle-jay. 

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  19 comments for “Why We Should Banish Business Suits for Interviews

  1. James Cohn
    August 1, 2015 at 4:02 pm

    I’m in favor of banning suits for both genders. If a man appears for an interview wearing a blazer and slacks, and a woman wearing either a blouse and slacks, or a blouse and skirt, that should be professional enough. I especially loathe ties.

  2. Chris Jordan
    July 31, 2015 at 7:22 am

    I have had a long time problem with being expected to wear a suit to a job interview. So for my last interview – I didn’t.

    I did my own thing.

    I did really well on the interview (didn’t get an offer because I wasn’t available soon enough) and I was able to just dress “nice”. As in “Librarian Nice”. Something you’d see a librarian wearing at any old time, but I did it with style in mind. I wanted them to think, “This is what kind of librarian you’d be getting” and not, “I’m good at dressing like a job candidate. Hire me!” Putting out a listing of what librarians would be permitted to wear on the job and then asking that they come in that attire is a GREAT idea. If they have to wear a suit everyday then they need to come in a suit. But if they’re expected to wear polo shirts? Let them come in a polo shirt.

  3. Hollis
    July 30, 2015 at 7:00 am

    If we simply asked candidates to wear what they consider appropriate daily wear to the interview we would learn so much about them. That is surely an incredibly strong argument to get rid of this bizarre “requirement.” Nice article!

    • Nebet
      August 1, 2015 at 4:26 pm

      This is a great point, and I agree completely.

    • August 4, 2015 at 1:19 pm

      Bryan – the nesting did not take. Post here in reply

      • Bryan
        August 4, 2015 at 2:27 pm

        The nesting showed perfectly in my web browser. The little dot was underneath Hollis’ reply, and the box nudged over slightly. I did not save a copy of what I wrote, and it looks like you deleted it. If you want to put it back up then that would be nice.

        • August 5, 2015 at 12:49 pm

          I didn’t delete anything – checked spam and trash and my cache – feel free to repost your thoughts though

  4. July 29, 2015 at 6:36 pm

    Wearing a suit conveys the “professionalism” of the interviewing company and, theoretically, your (our/my?) professionalism. However! I totally agree with Naomi – asking me to wear a suit to an interview is asking me to wear a façade. Does that mean we’re all fakes?

    • July 29, 2015 at 10:56 pm

      Not fakes – we are powerless as interviewees – we need the work most of the time so we do what we have to. Which is why I suggest the change needs to start with hiring committees (and already has begun there) – Naomi

  5. Kay
    July 29, 2015 at 4:51 pm

    You can get an OK-looking suit for $40 at Ross. Females can also get away with putting a black blazer on over a dress as long as the whole outfit matches well enough.

    Alas, there are zillions of rules for interview attire, plus zillions of ways people say you have to break those rules to stand out. Nothing’s clear, nothing’s sure, and that goes 400% for women. But I think clothes don’t matter nearly as much in interviews as people think. There’s SO MUCH to stress over in interviews! Don’t let this priggish vain BS trip you up!

    • July 29, 2015 at 10:58 pm

      The nearest Ross to where my parents live and I grew up is a 50 minute drive. Now add the fact that I never owned a car. Rural job hunters do not have this option often (that was a huge part of the article). And many unemployed people cannot afford $40 or have credit to put it on a card.

      I didn’t write this because “clothes don’t matter nearly as much in interviews as people think.” I wrote it because you don’t realize how much they DO. – Naomi

    • richpeopledontevenrealize
      July 30, 2015 at 3:55 pm

      To people who have never experienced poverty, it’s ALWAYS “only $X” (not to mention “only a few hours” for all those pesky chores that those who are more well off can afford to pay someone else to do). I’ve always been astonished at the contrdictory mandates that the poor must be 100% thrifty in all instances lest they only have themselves to blame for their on-going poverty, yet they ,ist also keep up with the expectations of the Joneses if they expect those wealthier than them to deign providing them with employment, or a basic level of respect, or acknowledgement for just how insanely difficult it is to merely survive while impoverished.

    • Lauren
      July 30, 2015 at 4:46 pm

      I received my LIS master’s more than a decade ago, and I work as a librarian full-time. I have less than $90 in my bank account with 2 weeks before payday. A $40 dress at Ross isn’t possible for everyone, although the blazer-over-dress idea is a good point.

  6. Stefanie
    July 29, 2015 at 9:47 am

    I posted this article to the SLA-NE discussion board (here on LinkedIn) with my comments. When I was last interviewing for a job, (late-2012 to early-2013), I did not own a suit. I STILL do not own a suit. I usually wear a black dress with a blazer. Still very sharp, and also while a step above what dresses I might normally wear to work, still more akin to my everyday style. (Plus, that black dress, which I still have, is one of the most comfortable things I own.)

    When I was interviewing for jobs post-undergrad in the mid-2000s, I typically wore a pair of nice pinstripe pants (I owned black, brown, and gray) and corresponding jacket. It was not suit, but was color coordinated and professional, I had a few people tell me because it was not a “suit”, it was inappropriate for an interview.

    It seems like the dress code does need to be better specified. I have no idea if any of the library jobs I was applying to 3 or 4 years ago, I did not get because I did not wear a suit to the interview. But I personally think as long as you look neat and professional and put-together, it should be enough. Maybe I am wrong? Would love to hear your thoughts!

    • July 29, 2015 at 11:46 am

      I can tell you that having sat on search committees and from discussing this with others that there are still those in our field who judge without warning candidates.

      Personally I LOVE your suit substitute- :) Naomi

  7. Max
    July 28, 2015 at 4:01 pm

    I LOVE this post for so many reasons.

    In addition, to me, the suit symbolizes White-supremacy and the tie symbolizes slavery to me.

    Thank you for writing this post!

    • July 28, 2015 at 10:46 pm

      Thanks so much, Max! It truly means a lot coming from you :) – Naomi

  8. Alex
    July 28, 2015 at 3:52 pm

    There may be an expectation of business suits for interviews out there, but it is almost never directly stated. I do think that anyone who is being interviewed for a job, library or otherwise, is always going to be safest in a suit and that is why this expectation persists. Candidates are never going to chance the possibility that incorrect dress will cost them a job and most hiring committees aren’t going to think twice about it because almost everyone just automatically shows up in suits.

    While I think your recommendation that hiring committees provide a dress code for candidates that they are interviewing is well intentioned, I fear it may do more harm than good. It is difficult to articulate a dress code at the best of times, and even harder if you are trying to be inclusive of a variety of cultural, socio-economic, and racial backgrounds. If you set the bar too low, you get candidates in cut off shorts, and if you set it too high then everyone defaults to suits anyway. Specifying a middle ground is difficult and even terms like “business casual” are not always clear.

    One interview dress code tip that I often see and I think makes some sense, is to stake the job site out beforehand to see what people are wearing and then dress a step above that for your interview. That’s a little harder to do when traveling to interview, but it will put you in the right ballpark in terms of dress. Also, suits for men, or at least suit jackets and pants, are a lot easier to find at thrift stores. I assume that’s less common for women and the problem will always continue to be a problem for anyone with an unusual body type, but probably one of the reasons that the interview suit continues to be standard is that men can usually find one.

    • July 28, 2015 at 10:49 pm

      Re: “While I think your recommendation that hiring committees provide a dress code for candidates that they are interviewing is well intentioned, I fear it may do more harm than good. ”

      Let me be clear, it is not a simple recommendation- I believe it is vital that IF search committees WILL be judging candidates in any way, shape or form on the way they dress than they MUST tell candidates.

      Also the suggestion of staking out a workplace to see how they dress is a waste of time and money – the whole point of this article. And yes “Men” are far too advantaged in the interview process dress code- and we MUST stop this! :) – Naomi

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