Job interview advice – Clothes

This article was first published with permission on Invisible Autistic.

For my first post on job interviews, I would like to tackle something that seems straightforward but actually has a lot of hidden social implications: what to wear to an interview.

There’s a lot of advice on the internet, but I always ended up feeling very frustrated because none of the articles would explain what I needed to wear to this particular interview. And their generalisations sort of seemed to hint at things that I was clueless about.

So I simply muddled along, trying to find what worked. And now, after countless job interviews (literally. I can’t count them anymore. I’ve had a lot) I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned. Autistic style!

Casual Friday?

First of all, there are certain levels of informality / formality that are implied in the clothes you wear. Casual and business attire simply doesn’t cover all the options. So I’ve made a little chart.

Level Men Women
1 Naked Naked
2 Underwear Underwear
3 Swimsuit Swimsuit
4 Shorts Shorts and tank top
5 T-shirt and jeans T-shirt and jeans
6 Shirt and jeans Blouse/top and jeans
7 Jacket and jeans Jacket and slacks/skirt
8 Suit without tie Trouser suit
9 Suit with tie Skirt suit
10 Tuxedo Gala dress

You’ll notice that it’s mostly the same for men and women, although men can get away with jeans for a bit longer and women have a few more styles to choose from. I’ll give you a few examples.

The level 9 guy is wearing the same suit as the level 8 guy, just with the addition of a tie. I thought it would be interesting to see the difference in close up.

A few things to keep in mind: it’s never ok to wear shorts, cut-offs, short skirts, tank tops, or crop tops to a job interview, no matter what the position. Well, unless you’re applying for a job serving drinks at the beach, maybe. But even then it’s not a bad idea to at least keep your thighs covered and most of your chest (a shirt can be open to about armpit level). And always wear something with sleeves. This goes for men as well as women.

Trick the company

For most interviews generally, you’ll want to be aiming for about a level 7-9. A lot depends on the company where you’re applying for a job. But don’t worry! There is actually a magic trick that hardly anybody tells you about.

You can simply ask the person you’re doing the interview what you should wear.

Not literally, of course. I’ll give you two scenarios. You can choose whichever one you feel comfortable with. Phone is quicker but scarier because there’s more interaction needed. Make sure to keep a pen and paper handy so you can make notes!

Phone

“Hi, this is Karen, I’m calling to say that I’m really looking forward to our interview on Monday. I’m doing a bit of prep work on the company and I was wondering if you could tell me what most people wear around the office.”
[Answer]
“Oh, that sounds fun / practical / very professional*. Is that for customer facing / non-customer facing positions** or just in general?”
[Answer]
“Thank you, that gives me a lot of valuable information about your company! Well, thanks for your time and if you have any questions for me, you can always reach me through e-mail or phone. See you on Monday!”

* Choose which of the three works best. Fun is shorts and flip flops. Professional is suits. Practical is everything in between. Yes, this will require some improvisation on your part.
** Choose which of the two YOU are applying for.

E-mail

“Hi,
Thank you again for scheduling an interview with me next Monday. In preparing for the interview it would help me immensely to get a copy of your company’s dress code, or a general idea of what other employees in a customer facing / non-customer facing position*** usually wear from day to day. Could you let me know before Friday? Thank you and I look forward to discussing other aspects of the job with you on Monday!”

*** Choose which of the two YOU are applying for.

The beauty of this setup is that you are being honest about what you need (instructions on what to wear), and they get the feeling that you are genuinely interested and want to get to know the people as well as the company. They LIKE it when you ask them what you should wear! Isn’t it awesome?

Uncertainty and colours

If you’re not sure where on the scale their answer falls (especially in IT this happens a lot – IT people don’t pay that much attention to clothes so they can’t or won’t give you a straight answer), err on the side of caution and overdress a little bit, or choose a similar outfit as what they describe other people wearing but with more conservative colours. For levels 5, 6 and 7 conservative basically means no patterns or prints, only solid colours with a preference for muted blues, reds, and greens. Purple is also an option for women. You can do blacks and greys but in those levels you run a risk of being seen as boring. So some colour is better than none. For levels 8 and 9, stick to dark to light blues or greys. Dark to light brown is possible but risky. Black makes you seem like an undertaker.

Comfort level

One important part that I haven’t mentioned so far is your own comfort level.

For a lot of autistic people, clothes can cause a major sensory overload. If this is the case with you, DON’T force yourself to wear something you’re uncomfortable in. It will do you more harm than good. If you think you can make it through an interview in uncomfortable clothing, then by all means do so, but test it out first. Put on your interview clothes inside your own home and do random stuff for an hour or so. If that’s already overloading you, then no way are you going to make it through a stressful interview.

Two options: turn down the interview and look for a job that expects a lower formality of clothing, or disclose to the people doing the interview that you have sensory issues. You don’t need to mention autism if you’re not comfortable doing so, but it’s better to tell people beforehand why you won’t be wearing appropriate clothing. Otherwise they will be surprised and they will hold that against you because interviewers don’t like to be taken by surprise, because that diminishes their power and control over the interview.

If you have some clothing that you feel comfortable in, that fits your body well (not too tight or too baggy), and that still conforms to the expected level of formality, then you’re all set. You won’t have to worry about sending the wrong messages and it will enable you to appear more confident and self-assured. And that’s what half the interview is about.

Final tip

If you feel up to it, ask a trusted and honest friend how you look. Or take a picture of you in your interview clothes and post it in an online community where you can expect honest feedback. I still do this for every interview I have. It really helps to have someone look at your clothes with a fresh eye, and it has nothing to do with being autistic or not! Everyone can make clothing mistakes sometimes.

In my next post, I’ll be talking about accessories, make-up, and grooming. Not the monkey kind.

Pig-tailed macaque at Khao Yai National Park

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