The 50+ job interview: The importance of appearance

A reader, C., sent an e-mail asking about the importance of appearance for a job interview; she is 50.

Her thoughtful questions were,
1. How concerned do I need to be about looking credible (visually) to those who don't already know my work?
2. If credibility is borne in my appearance, how do I dress to look credible?
3. How does credible dovetail with chic?

In this context, I define "looking credible" as appearing convincing for the particular role.

Her e-mail was headed, "What's More Important, What She Wears or What She Does?" I don't see it as a dichotomy; instead, I'd ask, "When an interviewer meets you, what impression do you intend to make, and what will visually reinforce that?"

After decades spent working with both interviewers and candidates, my answers to the first two questions came readily. I considered C.'s field, qualifications (a recent PhD.) and location, which suggest a business or polished business-casual environment.

My answers are:
1. Be concerned about—and therefore attend to—your appearance unless they know and love you to bits and the interview is just a formality.
2. Appearance especially contributes to the impression of credibility in the initial meeting. Dress in a manner that reflects the norms of your profession and the organization who may hire you. If in doubt, follow the cues of the latter.
C. wondered if she could "get away" with no stockings; I replied, be careful about cutting a corner for one of the most important meetings of your career. Being more 'dressed up' than your interviewer is no error; after all, it's a job interview, where everyone knows you will be better-dressed and more nervous than on any other day except maybe your wedding, if you had one.

As I often advised candidates, "The first day at work is the interview."   

A few more points from my reply:  

1. Project vitality foremost

Employers don't want to hire anyone who looks tired, so a woman (or man) over 50 should project cues of vitality. If you peel back age discrimination—which is rampant—the fear employers have is not solely that older workers are obsolete, it's that we have less stamina.

To transmit vitality, the visual and movement cues include relatively average weight; overweight is OK but severe obesity telegraphs "here come the sick days" even if that's an inaccurate stereotype. What-Mom-taught-you grooming and posture, eye contact, a firm handshake and warm smile: all contribute to that sense of vitality.

You would think that's common sense, but I saw a highly-qualified fifty-something woman cut because she wore no lipstick to the interview; the comment was that she looked "limp". One coat of rose away from being short-listed! "Not fair", you might be thinking, and no it wasn't— but there were other good candidates, and she was passed by.

Judge for yourself; this is not the woman from the interview, yet there is a resemblance. She appears in Lisa Eldridge's video about how to apply makeup when you're mature. Look at the difference the lipstick alone makes.

Some 50+ job-seekers get fillers and lifts to compete with younger candidates. I can't make an accurate assessment whether this gives a proven advantage; it may boost the candidate's confidence.

2. Accept that in many organizations, you will be sartorially constrained, either because of the culture or work requirements

If you really cannot abide "looking the part", find one of the more freewheeling places or work from home. 

C., accustomed to the freedom of student garb, was reluctant to adopt what she called "the formula box", citing Condoleeza Rice and Hilary Clinton as anti-heroes. But those bulletproof outfits hold up to grueling work days and travel across time zones. Like a Hazmat suit, they equip you to do the job. 

Only a few business settings remain navy-suit bastions; a dress like Tara Jarmon's black floral shift would look stylish for many interviews, accessorized with a laptop bag, briefcase, or portfolio (not a purse) in good condition.

When Barbara Ehrenreich talked about her futile job search in "Bait and Switch", her book about white-collar unemployment, she wrote rather
disingenuously, "I guess I should have carried a briefcase instead of a grotty canvas tote bag". Yes, even if she had to borrow one. (Leather not required; the Graceship laptop bag shown is a high-quality "vegan leather".)

If in doubt, sit in the lobby and watch women leave, or enlist a friend who works in that city as your scout. 

3. Be yourself, but your professional self

C. said "I...tend to be slightly flirty. I can't seem to squelch it nor do I really want to." She also noted that her field is "ruled by the masculine".

Whether (and how) a woman displays her charms in workplace tells a great deal about her qualities and values. C. will know how to keep her womanly verve on the "slightly" side.

The coquette is not an ennobling stance in office life. I mentioned Christine Lagarde as a model of feminine yet authoritative business attire; we need not meet her posh price point, but her elegance is exemplary.

C. sent a thoughtful reply, saying she was going to adopt a "uniform" kind of wardrobe, inspired, interestingly, by a respected male colleague. 

She also opened another topic, that of how easy it is to be disheartened and buy into the prejudice against women over 50 in the workplace.

That reminded me of my friend R., who, because of a health issue, was not working for about five years and after successful treatment wanted to re-enter corporate life at 50-plus. All her friends told her, Forget it, the corporation won't want you, find another line of work—and she ignored us. After a year or so of interviews and a few near-misses, she landed a VP position in a major global company, and a short time later was named Professional of the Year in her field. She graciously refrained from saying, So there!

She is but one of the women whom I know who, after years out of the workforce, have then found rewarding employment. (Starting your own business is another matter; there is no job interview, but that woman will still gain from projecting vitality.)

On Thursday I'll consider C.'s intriguing third question: How does credible dovetail with chic?


une femme said…
Great advice, Duchesse. I'd also add that in most areas and industries, at least in the US, it's perfectly acceptable for a woman to wear a pants suit or separates with pants/jacket to a job interview, if one wants to sidestep the pantyhose issue.
Anonymous said…
One thing I have learned, after watching a few very qualified people miss out or almost miss out on jobs: Often, there are higher-ups in the organization who are not conducting in-depth interviews, but they still have veto power. They may attend the interview, a presentation, or a lunch with the applicant, but they don't really know much about the job the person is applying for. These people are more likely to judge applicants on whether they look the part for the job.

I've heard statements from top-level officials saying someone looks too young (despite years of experience on the job at that same company), or not professional enough (despite having a national reputation as a leader in his field). It's not fair and it's actually pretty stupid; but it happens and one needs to be prepared.
Rita said…
I agree with everything you've said here, and I'm surprised at how many older women seem to think these rules don't apply to THEM. I do think the print dress should be worn with a dark blazer, though.
Great in depth response to C's question...
I remember several interviews in my past and I over dressed, was far too hot and felt that I could not remove my jacket so I was soaked by the end of it...not a great feeling. I would also suggest that 50 plus women consider the fabrics they choose carefully!
Bravo and kudo's to your friend that was named business woman of the year! I like her spunk and determination...
Susan said…
I recently assisted my daughter in law choose what to wear for a job interview. Admittedly she is not 50 (she's 30), but she is also a Phd and was applying for an academic position. I think some of the same rules apply. She wore a conservative dress (no jacket--it was summertime in Texas) with sleeves and low heels (microfiber heels that would be comfortable throughout a long day of interviews.) Her aim was to look professional AND chic.

I would think that pants would be fine, but that would probably entail a jacket. I think a lot has to do with the climate and the prevailing mode of dress for the particular area. This is such a good topic Duchesse.
Anonymous said…
Very interesting. It's been decades since I had a job interview, but I can think of other social situations in an older woman's life where first impressions are also important. As you say, projecting vitality is key, and it's often communicated through posture, facial expressiveness, and color--as that lipstick in the marvelous Lisa Eldridge video demonstrates. Looking forward to Thursday's discussion on clothing/chic.

C. (not the one being interiewed, thank goodness)
LPC said…
I agree with what you say here, unsurprisingly. I feel as though my entire blog in the years 2011-2013, and my guest posts on Corporette,the have pretty much covered my feelings on the topic:). That said, the universe could use a blog devoted to business casual attire, including interviews, and une femme's comes pretty dang close.
Roberta said…
Fantastic advice, especially the "not a dichotomy" comment - we are evaluated by what we do AND how we look - so make choices that represent your best self. One comment, I think it behooves internal candidates to bring their A game just as much as outside candidates. I've seen too many internals show up assuming they can relax, and not be ready to have the conversation about what they will bring to the NEW job. the thing about internals is that you know their bad habits as well as their good ones.
Duchesse said…
pseu: Agree; it depends on the geographic area, company culture and field of work.

bettina: I've seen that too. (Good night, what I have seen! Including a severely obese man reject a somewhat overweight female candidate for being "too fat".)

Rita: That would look great, if climate allows.

hostess: Good point! Given that many of us sweat more when nervous, any fabric that does not breathe is going to feel like wearing a plastic bag.

Susan: Pants are usually fine and I think the knee-grazing skirt can go anywhere.

LPC: I'd say both you and Pseu are/were guiding lights for business casual. I always like to see a little step up for the interview. They know what you're doing and it's a sort of unspoken acknowledgment of the ritual.

Susan: A woman in a similar competition asked me what to do and I advised a jacket (summer weight). She relied that when she got to the interview, the committee (all women) were in knit tops. She thought she'd made a mistake; I did not. You can dress differently once you're hired. Hope your DIL was successful.

C.: After a day of interviews, the panel cannot recall the colour of a specific woman's outfit but they can recall if she looked limp.

Roberta: Absolutely! And that enthusiasm for the new role is a powerful transmitter of vitality. As one man once said to me, "It's so much harder when you're the internal; they've seen you in your underwear!
A well timed reminder as I'm going for an interview after being with the same employer for 25 years.
Very relevant topic, la Duchesse!

I do think the woman in the photo looks considerably older than 50...

While these general rules hold, they also depend a lot on the field, milieu, country and local culture. I think Susan's daughter's wardrobe choice might read a bit too conservative for a professorial job around here, but the clothing and general "mise" required by supposedly modern and semi-casual employers in the media, arts and academia is even more of a minefield. A certain "look" is desired, and it can be at least as expensive and painstaking as standard corporate drag. I was trying to google sites on this, to no avail.
Gretchen said…
All the comments here are as helpful as your post, Duchesse. One thing I've noticed in my years as an interviewer and an interviewee: I never remember what someone wore when it was standard interview fare (nor when asked did anyone who interviewed me), but I sure do remember those who decided to be "different," and it never was a positive. However, the general rule of thumb I try to share with others is to "be boring" in clothes choices, but not in your carriage, your responses, and your attentiveness. So many subtle clues and interpretations hang on the seemingly little issues. Don't let clothing or appearance be the deciding factor.
Susan said…
Lagatta, My daughter in law was not only interviewing with more than 10 people, but also giving a presentation before a group of 50+ people. Add to that the fact that Dallas is a fairly dressy city. (I don't wear denim jeans on most errands in the city.)

I really do think that different areas have different dress codes!
Yes, that is true Susan. I wouldn't say Montréal is less dressy than Dallas (you've seen la Duchesse's photos, and many of them are of people at a public market, not downtown) but the style is very different, due to both culture and climate.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: Think I know the 'look' you mean; again, it's all about echoing the norm, which may be restrictive, but gives interviewers reassurance (accurate or not) that you will fit in, more or less. (Some are more flexible and open than others.)

Susan: That regional difference is why I suggested a candidate enlist a local for her read, if the interview is in an entirely different part of the country. (Someone enlisted me re dress for a presentation she was making here.) And a presentation in front of 50 is a different setting than a lunch in a casual restaurant with one or two interviewers.

Great to hear she got the job!

Gretchen: Well said, and I concur. Appearance matters more when the candidate will be representing the company in a very public, visible way- see Thursday's post.
Anonymous said…
All fine and good but the problem remains, 50+ is the marketing kiss of death. The woman in the video is pushing 80, my 90 year old neighbour had fewer wrinkles. At 50 we become thrown into a giant demographic where a newly minted PHD and Hillary Clinton are lumped in with Nana in long term care.

That is exactly the problem, not what to wear to your interview. Most people will be weeded out before the interview and this Pollyana-attitude, wear lipstick that will do the trick, won't change the rampant ageist stereotyping of everybody as passed-it by 50.

I am sick of watching even the CBC with every older woman pumped full of facial filler, chubby cheeks and Botox, hide-hide above a normal neck. No more Barbara Frums, it's all about looking like a caricature.

Christine Lagarde or Angela Merkel, guess what, don't look young and it ain't a handicap in Europe like it is here.
diverchic said…
I once hired a 65 yr old woman to do sales for me. She was perfectly groomed, very conservatively dressed but she wore witty jewellry and glasses and she demonstrated fire and enthusiasm. I thought of her as an old tiger - and she was. She couldn't use a computer. Nonetheless, her social and sales skills were such we worked around that. She retired at 73.
Duchesse said…
Anon@ 8:16: I doubt that C., age 50, whose e-mail prompted this post, feels she is "lumped in with Nana in long term care", but, since she is recharging her batteries after earning her PhD. by taking a month-long backpacking hike, she may not read your comment.

There is indeed age discrimination (and also sexism, racism, nepotism, ableism and homophobia) in the workplace, along with other attitudes that impede competent persons from being hired.

Those conditions are not, however, excuses for giving up; I have seen too many successes to agree with you that it's over for anyone past 50. It takes longer, depends on the woman's skills, and some fields are more age-discriminatory than others.

That is a beautiful, subtle makeup tutorial, and I'm sending it to two friends!

One has that fine, fair skin that gets fine wrinkles. I don't think the woman in the video is pushing 90, she has a great jaw line. I'd say she is in her 60s?

I LOVED the "Barbara Cartland" quip.
Anonymous said…
Another suggestion that I saw on a recent blog posting that is certainly applicable here: make sure your hair style, eyeglasses, and overall grooming are up to date and fit you.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: I would guess 60s too; there is a very wide variation in how women's skin ages.

Anon@11:59: I agree, see tomorrow's post.
Anonymous said…
The other thing that brings that model's beautiful face to life is a bit of eyebrow pencil. As I've aged and my brows have simultaneously faded and decided to take up residence all over the top third of my face, I've realized that a well-defined but natural looking brow is really important.

Most days I don't bother with a lot of make-up, but I rarely leave the house without BB-cream (mostly for the SPF), brow-pencil, and lipstick. It looks natural, and I feel more confident.
Eleanorjane said…
Oh my goodness Duchesse, you knocked it out of the park with this post!

I know that people can find all the 'isms' disheartening, but we can fight back by making sure we present ourselves as dynamic, likely to fit with the team, going to be productive and useful etc.

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