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 LIS jobs resource 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 20 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 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 now lives part time in Western NY and Budapest, Hungary. She has heard of spare time but hasn’t encountered it lately. She pronounces INALJ as eye-na-elle-jay. 

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