This article was first published with permission on Invisible Autistic.
In my previous post, I discussed some of the unspoken rules around the clothes you wear to an interview.
This week, I want to focus on something that I still struggle with myself: personal grooming. Yes, you’ve read that correctly. Apparently it’s fairly common for individuals (both children and adults) on the spectrum to have problems with personal hygiene and grooming habits. I seriously have no idea why this is so. It might be related to hyper- or hyposensitivity (not wishing to be covered in artificial scents like soap and shampoo and deodorant, or not being aware of your own body odour), or it could be something more cultural and social in nature. There’s a lot of social pressure to say that you shower every single day (and sometimes twice a day), but I know for a fact that not everyone does so. Yet people won’t ever admit that, because of the stigma attached to lack of personal hygiene. For myself, I feel perfectly comfortable showering every 3 or 4 days at most. I don’t think people have ever noticed.
For a job interview, however, it’s important that you look and smell like other people.
Wash your hair the day of your interview. You don’t need to worry about styling, this is completely optional. As long as it doesn’t look greasy you’ll be fine. If you are worried about your appearance, you can go to a hairdresser a few days before your interview and get your hair cut and styled. DON’T under any circumstances get a haircut on the same day as the interview. The stray hairs will drive you absolutely bonkers and you will look like a crazy person constantly trying to pick hairs out of your neck. Trust me, I’ve done this.
Make sure all your clothes are freshly washed, with no visible stains or tears. Bring one or two safety pins for emergencies. I usually only discover a hole in my jacket 5 minutes before the interview is about to start. Stains are harder. If you discover a stain right before the interview, one option is to go to the receptionist or office manager (if they have someone like that) and say “Excuse me, I’ve just discovered a stain on my jacket / trousers / skirt. Do you have a wet cloth or some wipes so I can try getting it out?” It may sound counter-intuitive but they won’t be at the actual interview and therefore won’t judge you on accidents or not being 100% prepared. In fact, if you thank them (about 3 or 4 times max) and apologise for the inconvenience, they will see you as an approachable, sociable human being with a normal amount of nervousness. Everyone is nervous before a job interview, right? So that’s a good tactic to get the office manager or receptionist on your side. And believe me, that helps.
Put a small anti perspirant stick or roller in your bag or in your outer jacket. I know sticks may feel icky but sprays are usually too big to carry around with you. And you’re going to need anti perspirant, not deodorant – because deodorant is usually only perfume and nothing else. Sometimes, when I’m really nervous, I even dab some anti perspirant on my hands about 15 minutes before the interview so my hands won’t feel too sweaty when I’m shaking hands. Don’t do this too shortly before the interview though, because it might feel too dry. 15 minutes is a good time frame and will give you the opportunity to wash your hands if by accident you’ve used too much.
With many thanks to Ben Forshaw
This is something I was not aware of, even though I am a ferocious nail and nail bed biter. Your hands — and nails in particular — are likely to get noticed. I don’t know how the interview people do that if my attention-to-detail, notice-irrelevant-information autistic self doesn’t. But it’s probably one of those uncanny senses that neurotypical people have to immediately notice things that don’t conform to a certain standard.
So, here’s the advice. For men, nails should be short, neatly-trimmed and clean. For women they should be neat and clean, but can be short or long. What does neat mean? No ragged edges, no bleeding. If painted or false then they should have an even finish (I’m also a ferocious nail polish chipper, so I can attest to that one). Best to avoid nail decoration that’s too flashy or trendy, like very bright colours or patterns. If you habitually bite your nails so they appear untidy, Ben recommends getting a manicure close to the interview appointment: within a day if possible. I’ve never had a manicure but I can definitely see that working. My additional advice: avoid doing DIY or anything with sharp knives in the days leading up to the interview. Plasters and bruises are not an attractive look.
Here’s where there is a huge difference between men and women. As a man, you’re not supposed to wear any make-up at all, but women are regarded as social misfits when they don’t use any. I hardly ever use make-up myself, but I made an appointment with a make-up artist last year to explain to me how to apply all that stuff properly and what would work with my skin colouring and so on. Because I just couldn’t figure it out. When I wear make-up, I notice that people tend to take me more seriously. It’s silly but it works. So I would definitely advise any women reading this to invest in a (private) make-up tutorial and some products. You don’t have to slather your skin with crap, but some mascara and eyebrow pencil will already make a difference. Take your time to figure out what feels OK on your skin, I find that powders feel less sticky than creams. But even if you have sensory issues, a make-up artist can actually help you find products that don’t feel icky. Still, don’t worry if this is something that you simply don’t feel comfortable with. It helps with a job interview, but it’s not as important as clothes and hygiene.
Again, no jewelry for men. Watches and wedding rings are OK but if you have any other jewelry, take it off. For women, it’s again the exact opposite. I never used to wear jewelry but I have noticed that especially in job interviews with other women, this tends to set me apart as unfashionable and nonconformist. Even men to a certain degree prefer one or two pieces of discreet jewelry to none at all. The easiest option is to invest in a matching necklace and bracelet. You can even use a bracelet to unobtrusively stim a little bit when needed. Silver, gold, and wood coloured necklaces and bracelets work with nearly all outfits. Stay away from big chunky costume jewelry or jewelry with too many gemstones, however, unless you have pretty accurate fashion awareness.
This is a difficult one. If there’s any industry-specific footwear, like safety shoes for workshops or wellies/rubber boots for farm work, then that’s of course perfect. But overall, I would say leather shoes for men and (moderate) heels for women. However, a lot of autistic people have issues with uncomfortable shoes, especially autistic women and high heels. I personally like them because: toe walking! In public! Without comments! But not everyone does and that’s OK.
The most important thing is that you can walk on them and that your shoes don’t pinch your feet during the interview because that’s distracting. Leather shoes or brogues can be very stiff, especially if you don’t walk on them often. Suede is a bit more supple. Canvas sneakers, like Converse or Vans in a solid colour, are an acceptable alternative. I would advise against other sport shoes, especially white ones, unless you really can’t walk on anything else. A workaround is to wear your normal shoes to get to the interview and then change into your nice shoes just before. However, that definitely poses the risk of pinching or other uncomfortableness, so only do that if you’re sure the other shoes won’t drive you insane within an hour or less. Try it out while sitting on the sofa at home if you’re unsure.
Two last tips: make sure your shoes are absolutely clean (especially sneakers), and never ever wear open toed shoes or sandals, no matter how hot the weather is.
That wraps up my advice on clothes, accessories and grooming. It all sounds very superficial, but it helps to not get rejected before the interviewers even hear what you’re capable of. I had a job once doing data entry at an HR department, and I’ve seriously seen interview reports where a candidate got rejected for wearing the wrong kind of shoes. I would love to hear if you’ve got any similar stories or tips to share!
In the next post, I’ll be looking at what to do when you’re early or late for the interview, how to greet everyone, and other situational pitfalls.
On the topic of heels: if, like me, you have neither the ankles nor the grace to pull off traditional heels, try wedge heels. They provide a lot more stability and are a lot more comfortable, while being available in interview-appropriate styles and colors. If even wedges aren’t doable for some reason (I have a sprained ankle right now, for example, and with the added instability, heels just simply would not happen today, unless I felt like making my sprain worse and/or turning it into a dislocation), you can get away with flats if you choose them carefully. Opt for something that looks like heels other people would wear to an interview, only with no heel. Pick a pair that has a thick sole but isn’t a platform shoe if you can – it’s silly, but women are subject to less sexism the taller we look, so people will take you more seriously if you look taller. Stay away from ballet flats and tennis/beach-style shoes, both of which are too informal. Mary-Janes are okay, so long as you have something fancier in your outfit to balance out the style – if the rest of your outfit is very simple, they might make you look a bit childish (or so says my sister the fashionista).
This is also why practicing good posture is a good idea – I have an epic slouch. Most people peg my height at about 5’1″, but I’m actually 5’5″ and a bit. I just slouch. A lot. When I stand up straight, though, people take me more seriously, so I’ve been trying to change my posture. Like with the makeup thing, it shouldn’t matter, and it’s silly that it matters, but it does.
If you feel heels are an absolute necessity even though you have unstable ankles, try this: Carry a pair of flats in your bag. Go to the interview in the flats, then ask the receptionist where the toilet is (a lot of people get throw-up nervous before an interview, so they won’t think this is weird). In the bathroom, switch your shoes. This is also a good chance to examine your clothes/makeup/hair and do any last-minute fixes. After the interview, return to the bathroom and switch your shoes back. I do this at every interview I have because if I try walking down the street in heels, I will hurt myself. My ankles do not get along well with high heels.
One more thing: If your shoes show your toes, like peep-toe heels (stay away from strappy sandal-style heels because those are not business-wear), make sure your toenails match your fingernails in terms of quality of grooming. Some people I know even give themselves matching pedicures and manicures. If you opt for close-toe shoes, it won’t be an issue, but if your shoes are open-toe, NTs will think you’re careless or don’t have good attention to detail if your toenails aren’t as well-maintained as your fingernails if they’re visible. Again, supremely silly, but it matters. I hate doing my toenails almost as much as I hate having painted fingernails, so I just opt for close-toed shoes.
(YMMV depending on local corporate culture, but in Canada, plain peep-toe heels are acceptable interview wear for women, but they’re the only style of open-toe shoe that’s acceptable)
I have the worst time walking in wedges but it does make sense that they provide more stability! I like chunky heels for that reason as well. Don’t know why wedges give me such a hard time. But I’m weird anyway, I can’t for the life of me walk in flats either. I think I need the added arch support that heels give.
On the subject of open-toed shoes: I just find that there’s such a fine line between acceptable and not acceptable for interviews, that I steer away from them altogether. I’m just not capable of telling which ones are still classy and which ones show too much toe or look like beach shoes.
Some very good advice! Thanks for adding stuff!
Here, as I said, peep-toe are the only open-toe shoe that’s acceptable, and even then, the shoe can’t have loud patterns/colors or large decorations. I do have a pair for when I have the energy to do my toenails and it’s warm out, but definitely a good idea to be careful. It also depends on what position you’re interviewing for: Peep-toe okay for low-level entry positions, not okay for upper-management. Or so my sister tells me.
Also: I have a pair of wedges with a slight curve to the back of the heel that are much easier to walk in than any other heel I’ve ever had, even other wedges.
I have hypermobility syndrome, so I’m actually under medical orders to not wear heels at all. The pedorthist said if I must, I can wear them for up to an hour, but then I have to switch to shoes that can fit my orthopedic insoles.. This is in part because I have bad proprioception and in part because my ankle ligaments suck at being ligaments and therefore I’m prone to RSIs in my ankles and knees, I overpronate like whoa not because I have flat feet but because my ankles can’t support proper foot alignment, and I can literally sprain my ankle by stomping my foot. I’ve done it. XD
Wedges a great, aka the only heels I can walk in ever. Because I have a tendency to fall off my feet just when walking normally, so with wedges I still have to pay attention to walking, but it is doable. Also, I tested mine out for about a week before the actual occasion to make sure they worked and to practice walking. And that was a good thing because one of my friends pointed out that I was walking abnormally loud in them and also it a really strange way, so she taught me the “normal” way to walk in heels and then I had enough time to practice that before my interviews.
I’ve taken to just avoiding interviews altogether! If I have to dress formally I just pick a complete outfit from a catalogue so I know it must go, It’s getting easier with age, I just make sure I get at least two people’s opinions before I leave the house. Hair is a nightmare though, too much to manage! With regards to grooming, don’t get me wrong I’m not disgusting and I don’t smell (I don’t think), but it’s just not on my important list of things to do. It’s prioritised below special interest, eating and sleeping, and I do it because I consciously think that’s what I must do. I also stick to every 3 days for a wash, apparently it’s unhealthy to wash your skin more often (my current excuse), any longer and I’m usually subtlety pushed into the shower by my partner =p.
Getting someone’s opinion always helps! I’m a disaster with hair too, so that’s why I tend towards longer hairstyles where I can put it in a clip or bun, or shorter hairstyles where it’s the hairdresser’s job to make it look right.
Personal grooming is still a grey area for me, I don’t see the need to wash myself very often and am never disgusted by others who don’t shower every day (in fact they usually smell far more natural and pleasing to me), but for interviews I don’t want to take any risks.
that’s a good writeup for anyone I would say.. as you know my son is only young (7) but while i have “trained” him well into handwashing (better than most grownups) and teethbrushing (so important!), we totally fail the ‘regular shower’ so far. he needs the exactly right temperature, and pressure, it’s really complicated, and a bath is not much better, doesn’t want to go in, then doesn’t want to come out forever. i have to get this sorted somehow before he reaches puberty, as so far, he has very little BO.. but that will change! (and this is a hot country..) oh, did i mention that he only wets his hair about once a month or less and has, if I recall it right, not used shampoo for over a year.. (you would never guess if you look at his head, goes to show how we interfere with our body’s own regulations..)
It helps me to know “this is a thing we need to do for other people”. For myself? Not too bothered. Sometimes I catch a whiff of sweat (my mum calls it my vegetable soup whiff) and then I’ll use some deodorant. But I ALWAYS have a roller in my bag, in case I forget to put some on and other people get bothered. I do anti-BO stuff to not upset other people and for me that’s a good reason to do it. Far better reason than “you should keep clean because that’s what you’re supposed to do” which is a fallacious, looping-back-on-itself argument (and yes, I made a historical study of hygiene as related to infections and diseases and stuff, and so yes I disinfect cuts and wash my hands because that’s important. Not being smelly? Not so much). Welcome to my autistic brain. 😛
oh, as a matter of fact, I am not a religious ‘a shower each day’ kind of person either. I am calling it ‘being european’ about it (i am) ;b not because of BO, but because I am more conscious about water wasting and just don’t see the need for it on the cooler days. remember when people used to wash themselves everyday and took a bath once a week ? exactly.. (but then, it is the subtropics here and in summer a shower really has a lot of benefits in terms of comfort as well..)
The big thing I have trouble with for personal grooming is makeup. It makes my face itch, and eye stuff just makes me want to rub my eyes and sometimes I do and then it gets all smudged. I’ve tried a bunch of different types, but have yet to find stuff that doesn’t feel bad. The only stuff I can wear easily is lip gloss/lipstick.