Dressing for Job Fairs

Dressing for Job Fairs

Have you ever considered wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt to a job fair? After all, you're probably going to be on your feet all day, so you might as well forget the suit and tie or hosiery and high heels in favor of comfort. And who gets hired at a job fair anyway? The people in the booths are usually low- to mid-level recruiters with very little say in the hiring process, and you're really just there to drop off a resume and move on to the next booth.

Does that describe what you think about job fairs?

The US Department of Labor says 16 percent to 18 percent of all job seekers find jobs at career fairs. So the reality is that your formal interview begins the moment the person behind the booth lays eyes on you.

Most job seekers know you have to kick it up a notch -- or even two -- for an interview. So why do so many slack off when dressing for a job fair? Perhaps it's because you really can't read the minds of the people behind those booths. They all seem cheerful and sociable, but what are they really thinking? What is their power in the hiring process, and just how important is your manner of dress to them?

What Recruiters Say

Several years ago, in an effort to help my own career-coaching clients make the most of career fairs, I did an informal survey of more than 40 job fair recruiters. These recruiters described their gut reactions to both people who dressed extremely casually and those who obviously had taken the time to sport clean, pressed, conservative formalwear. Frankly, the results were startling.

Almost universally, recruiters at these events said that, simply on the basis of seeing the job seeker -- and before the seeker ever reached their booth, talked to them or handed over their resume -- that the prospect dressed in extremely casual clothing struck them as being unprepared, irresponsible, less capable, less educated, less qualified and possessing poor work habits.

On the other hand, they described more formally dressed individuals as capable, well-educated, intelligent, trustworthy and responsible -- the people they wanted to hire.

Now we all know that wearing faded jeans, a sweater and tennis shoes certainly does not make you less intelligent or capable than someone dressed in more traditionally formal business clothes. It's absurd to base a hiring decision on the basis of appearance. Isn't it?

Mind Your First Impressions

As much as you may hate to admit it, most people do judge other people within seconds of meeting them. Ever experienced love at first sight -- or the opposite? Making a conscious or subconscious decision in the first few seconds you see someone doesn't mean you're a snob; it means you're human. And so are the folks who recruit at job fairs.

A formal study of hiring managers in more than 400 companies by the San Jose Mercury News concluded the average employer makes a hiring decision within 15 seconds of meeting you. The study simply illustrates a point that psychologists and scientists have known for a long time: A part of the human brain is specifically designed to size up a stranger in the first few seconds. It is a built-in feature of the human nervous system to determine, within seconds, whether a stranger approaching us is friend or foe. And that's the very mechanism that drives employers, recruiters and human resource representatives to (perhaps not consciously) evaluate a person on the basis of appearance.

So when you get ready to attend a job fair, pull out a professional outfit, pick some businesslike shoes, get your hair trimmed and go for it!