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Job Seekers: How to Decide What to Wear

You're heading to a job interview, career fair, coffee/networking meeting, the grocery store… Do you consider what you'll wear? Each time you show up, your look and style should reflect your values, attract your target audience, and represent how you want to be perceived.

One of the aspects of the military-to-civilian transition veterans express excitement over is the ability to choose what they wear. Similarly, one of the things veterans say stresses them about the civilian work place is not knowing what to wear.

It's easier to know how to present yourself when you address these questions first:

  • What industry or job am I in or pursuing?
  • Is there a "dress code" in that industry?
  • Can I present myself as someone who is successful in that industry or job?
  • Who is my target audience (who's attention do I seek)?
  • How do I want them to perceive me?

From there, you'll be able to whether to wear a business suit to a job interview, or jeans and a blazer to a networking event.

Some insights into various meetings and what you might wear:

Job Interview

The job interview is a formal event, by its nature. You show respect for the process and the interviewer by dressing up. One rule of thumb is to dress one notch above the interviewer. If he or she would wear slacks and a blouse, consider wearing a sports coat or blazer. If they will be in a suit, do the same. If they'll be in jeans and a polo shirt, wear slacks and a blouse and blazer. Research the company in advance to see how employees and managers dress there. Also, certain industries are more formal in dress code (e.g. financial services firms) and others are classically more casual (e.g. advertising firms, warehouse and distribution centers, technology firms). While there are no rule books for dress code across industries, you gain insight by reviewing their website and other online platforms to get a sense of how their employees dress for work.

Job Fair

Like the job interview, at career or job fairs first impressions matter. Before attending a career or job fair, get a list of who will be exhibiting and identify the ones you want to meet. Then, review their dress code or industry wardrobe norms. Even if most of the job fair attendees attend in jeans, if the companies and positions you seek require a more formal dress code, wear the suit.

Your goal is to show the employer that you understand their industry and company and would seamlessly integrate into their work style and culture.

Networking Event

An event where business professionals gather to discuss trends, news and share business prospects is sometimes harder to dress for. You will likely encounter people dressed all different ways -- from casual to very professional.

Questions to ask yourself about dressing for a networking event:

  • Who will be there that I know? (Ask them what is appropriate attire.)
  • What do I know about the organization/venue/topic? (Is it a serious topic that requires the respect of dressing up? Or, is it a social format where people will be more relaxed?)
  • What is my goal for attending? (Do you seek to connect with clients or prospects? Are you looking to build your networking contacts? Are you meeting new contacts who might not know you?)
  • What do I need to bring with me? (If carrying resumes, will you need to carry a portfolio or bigger purse? Business cards require a small case that can fit into a pocket.)
  • Is the event a morning, lunchtime or evening event? (Knowing this can help you decide what else you'll do that day, and how you'll need to be dressed for those meetings, as well.)

Networking Meeting

Meeting someone for coffee to network and learn more about them is an opportunity to represent yourself as polished and professional, but also comfortable. Consider the intent of the meeting, location, other person's industry and company, and how you want to be perceived. For instance, if you seek to make an impression as someone who is a leader of people and companies, you might consider dressing up a bit. To be approachable and relatable, consider being more casual (yet still polished).

The point of "dressing the part" is to represent your values and style, and be relevant to the audience you are targeting. If you overdress for the occasion, you risk distancing yourself from your target audience. Underdressing can be taken as disrespect or a lack of insight into protocol.

While the civilian workforce has no "uniform" across industries, there are best practices and guides for dressing to be influential and create impact. As for the grocery store, I typically choose function over fashion, knowing I'll likely be asked to help customers reach the high shelves.

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