What to Do When a Job Interview Turns Into a Style Makeover

November 14, 2015, 4:05 PM UTC
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Dear Annie: This might be kind of a weird question, but my roommate and I need your help. We’re both seniors in college, and we’ve been meeting with campus recruiters about jobs and internships that might lead to jobs. I just came from an interview where the interviewer spent almost half of the allotted twenty minutes telling me what was wrong with what I was wearing—mainly that she could see too many tattoos (I have 8, but only 3 were showing), and also my skirt was too short and my shoes were too casual. My roommate got a similar lecture last week from an interviewer who told her to lose her piercings, among other things.

Both of us were so surprised that we were we were speechless and probably seemed like idiots. We’ve asked our parents how we should have reacted, but none of them have ever heard of this before. Have you? — 2 Broke Girls

Dear 2BG: Actually, no, but Stu Coleman has. A partner and senior managing director at recruiting firm Winter Wyman, Coleman says that one of the most common questions he hears from job candidates—especially, but not only, inexperienced ones—is what to wear to an interview.

The real problem, he points out, is how to present a professional appearance and still be your true self. “Sure, you could put on a suit or a dress, remove your piercings, and cover up all your ink. But what if that’s just not you?” he asks. “Dressing completely differently from who you really are is like trying to have a serious conversation while wearing a toga. It will completely throw you off your game.”

Coleman has often coached job applicants on how to handle this dilemma. He recently met a new college grad who was applying for a recruiter position on his team. “She was great, personable and talented, but my hang-up was that she was wearing a casual jeans outfit and had more piercings than I could count,” he says. “Our workplace is a bit conservative. So I suggested she tone down her style a little for her next interview here, with her prospective boss.”

That meant wearing a more businesslike suit or dress, Coleman recalls, along with removing all but two earrings in each ear, switching the nose hoop for a stud, and taking out her lip piercing. Sound familiar?

Interviewers who give you this kind of critique are actually trying to do you a favor, he says. “Don’t think of it as a makeover,” he advises. “Think of it as a ‘make better.’ It usually means the recruiter likes you. They hope you can fit into their corporate culture and get hired. Take it as a compliment.”

So consider toning down your style a bit to reflect the culture of the company you hope to join. At the same time, Coleman has a couple of ideas on how to show interviewers your true self, or something like it. First, he says, “Skip the mall. Don’t go shopping.” Buying a new outfit for a job interview is not only expensive, he says, but it’s hard to get a great fit right off the rack, and you may never wear it again.

Instead, take a good look through your closet. “Every guy probably owns a sport coat he’s worn to a wedding or some semi-formal affair,” he notes. “Go with that, plus pressed slacks and a shirt. For women, it’s even easier. Pick a somewhat conservative dress and a sweater or a basic jacket.” Wearing something you already own and have worn before is likely to make you more comfortable than something new, and, he says, that can translate into a better interview performance.

The jacket or sweater serves two purposes. “First, it may be 110 degrees in the shade outside, but it will likely be freezing from AC in the office,” he says. “And second, a jacket or sweater will keep your mad ink under wraps [until you’re ready]. You can decide whether, and how much, you want to let recruiters base their hiring decision on your style.”

That said, cultural fit is a complex thing that goes way beyond tattoos, piercings, or clothes. Getting it right is crucial, and that usually means you have to ask a lot of questions. A conversation with a recruiter that’s so intimidating or distracting that it leaves you “speechless,” as you say, is probably a sign that you’d be smart to keep looking.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Consider, for instance, that promising Winter Wyman candidate with all the piercings. She took Coleman’s advice, toned down her look, and “had a great interview with her potential manager,” he says. “We made her an offer—and she turned us down. In the end, we just weren’t her kind of company.” Enough said.

Talkback: Has a job interviewer ever made a critical comment about what you were wearing? How did you respond? Leave a comment below.

Have a career question for Anne Fisher? Email askannie@fortune.com.

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