So you’ve landed an interview at [insert local company name here].
Here’s what comes next: You’re clearly qualified, so you’ve got that going for you. But you’ll want to study up on the company before the big day. Who are the big names there? What’s its history? Has anything happened there recently you should know about?
Got all that? Great. Now what the hell are you going to wear?
To be sure, startups have been permanently stamped as the land of ill-fitting jeans and hoodies. That’s a reputation that’s well-deserved in many cases. But it doesn’t mean that’s what you should wear to your interview.
To provide some tips, we chatted with five experts – including a couple local startups hiring like mad, a staffing company and two area menswear experts. The advice is a bit more tailored toward men, but there are universal tips that apply to women in here, too.
Pay attention: You’re in good hands.
“You don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb in your suit while everyone is in jeans and T-shirts.
It’s a startup – can’t I just wear anything?
Honestly? Maybe. But that’s not going to win you any favors.
“Dressing for a startup interview is a double-edged sword,” said Becky McCullough, who runs domestic recruiting at HubSpot. “On the one hand, you want to look professional and communicate that you’re taking the interview seriously; on the other, you don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb in your suit while everyone is in jeans and T-shirts. The decision on what to wear definitely requires a bit more consideration and good judgement.”
HubSpot now interviews hundreds of people globally every week, so McCullough knows a thing or two about dressing right, whether it’s in person or via video chat.
Exercising good judgement is key. So is recognizing that not all startups are created equal.
“‘Start up’ can be a fairly generous word, so get to know the ‘personality’ of the start up you’re applying to,” said Ministry of Supply‘s Aman Advani. “Then, tailor the advice you get to match that startup in particular, since if there’s one thing startups don’t like, it’s being generalized.”
Boilerplate: No, you can’t just wear anything.
What faux pas should I definitely avoid?
I’m so glad you asked.
The ultimate faux pas here, of course, is drawing negative attention to what you’re wearing rather than the substance of your expertise. There’s a line between being yourself and playing it safe that you should take dead aim at.
“It’s always better to overdress than underdress for an interview. Boston is a fairly conservative city, and an interview is not a time to rebel against that,” said Fan Bi of Blank Label. “Please no athleisure, and please no aggressive fragrances or cologne.”
You want to stay within your wheelhouse while nailing the personality of this particular company. If that means ditching the suit, or the tie, you’re probably better off doing that than forcing it.
“The most common minor faux pas I’ve heard of are generally around people overdressing in relaxed companies,” said Ronjon Bhattacharya at Kendall Staffing. “For instance if someone shows up in a full suit at a T-shirt and jeans place (especially in a non-customer facing role), that’s not necessarily the best move.”
Wistia‘s Kristen Craft echoed that sentiment: “One of the most important things is to read your audience. Take the time to look at any photos or videos about the company and its office culture. If it’s a jeans a T-shirt place, don’t show up in a suit. If it’s a formal place, don’t look like a schlub in your torn T-shirt.”
So … who should I ask?
Five out of our five experts agree, here: The smartest move when discerning how to dress for a particular startup interview – or really, any interview for that matter – is to ask the HR department there outright.
“Even if you are sure what to wear, ask HR what you should wear to the job interview and wear exactly that. From the interview point-of-view, this is a really common question and shows good judgement on your part,” said Bhattacharya.
McCullough agrees: “At HubSpot, I am clear with the candidates I work with that business professional dress isn’t required and advise them to wear business casual. A good recruiter is going to want to set you up for success, so will be honest with you about what is acceptable and what isn’t.”
This isn’t a trick, people. Nobody is trying to fool you. Companies want the best candidates, and you landed an interview, so you might be it. The last thing anyone wants is to have to huddle up after the interview is over and talk about what you wore. If you ask beforehand, it’ll be tough to go wrong – if you don’t, you’re rolling the dice unnecessarily.
Shouldn’t I just be comfortable and be myself?
One thousand times, yes.
“Your default should be understated and comfortable. Go with the basics. You should be remembered for your content not your outfit, and your dress should not be the area you take risks,” said Bi. “Try to find clothes that fit: there’s nothing worse than sitting in an interview and pulling on your shirt sleeve because it makes you uncomfortable.”
Said Craft: “The biggest faux pas I see is people dressing in things that clearly make them uncomfortable. Don’t wear shoes that you can’t walk in or a shirt that you have to keep adjusting. Don’t wear something that doesn’t feel like ‘you.’ It’ll be discernible to your interviewer that you feel awkward.”
If the interview calls for a suit, wear a suit. But if not, don’t force one if that’s not you, especially if it looks like it hasn’t seen the outside of your closet since college. Dark jeans, dress shoes and a crisp white button-down is a look anyone can pull off – and one that’ll never steer you wrong. (Just remember to match the color family of the shoes and belt.)
If you’re still not sure, echoed Advani, here’s some advice: “Creep around their office and see what other people are wearing the day before, then just wear that … Just kidding. If you’re not sure, default to a clean button-down and a well-fitting pair of pants (i.e. no wrinkles, not too loud and fit well).”
Got it – anything else I should know?
Yep, here are some parting shots from our experts:
- Advani: “More and more, interviews are two ways – you are also interviewing the startup, and you shouldn’t forget that. So in the advice I shared on being yourself, if for some reason that disqualifies you that’s probably OK, you would have been miserable anyway!”
- Bhattacharya: “Generally speaking, interview dress won’t make or break an interview. However, your own nerves might make you underperform, so it’s important to wear something that’ll help you perform as well as you can.”
- McCullough: “I once had a candidate show up to an interview with a huge gym bag in tow. He clearly had just come from working out! I’m all for staying in shape, but when you show up for your interview, your focus should be work, not working out–unless of course you’re interviewing to be a trainer.”
- Craft: “It’s probably best to avoid showing up in a company tee shirt (if you have one for the company where you’re interviewing). I’ve seen this done before, and this can definitely come across too strong!”
In sum, McCullough stressed the importance of comfort and confidence.
“Dressing for interviews in the tech field is the ultimate Goldilocks paradox – you don’t want to be too hot or too cold on the sliding scale, you want to be just right,” she said. “I recommend working with your contact at the company to get feedback, checking out the company’s Glassdoor profile for photos of what employees wear day to day, and solving for confidence and comfort – that three-pronged approach typically helps people set the right tone for the job they want.”