Rules for job hunting and interviewing have become so institutionalized and complex that employers and managers make themselves look downright silly. My guess is that this is costing their companies dearly.

It’s bad enough when job hunters over-think how they are going about it — but it’s sometimes scary when employers reveal how they judge people they interview.

The New York Times offers an article titled Subtle Cues Can Tell an Interviewer “Pick Me” in which employers talk about the subtle cues they look for when reviewing job applicants. While such insights into the mind of the employer are interesting and potentially useful, some of this stuff reveals how kooky candidate selection sometimes is.

One employer takes a dim view of applicants who don’t wear a suit to an interview. So what happens when a guy shows up in a sport coat and tie, but is otherwise an outstanding candidate? Is it so hard to tell him, “Hey, we really like you. But if we hire you, we’d expect you to wear a suit to work. Is that okay with you?” Clothing can be shed and changed more easily than our skills and attitude. How many good candidates are lost to employers because managers are stuck on a rule about clothing?

Just how important is that suit, really? (Is it worth a Porsche? I’ll tell you in a minute.)

Another manager quoted in the article seems to sacrifice good candidates because they use paper. David Santos, executive director of human resources for Interbrand, a brand management firm, has exacting standards when it comes to paper and e-mail. Which should a candidate use when sending him a follow-up thank you note? “Mr. Santos’s preference shows how tricky this can be.”


“He says that for a company like his, which is more digitally focused, it would show a lack of awareness to send a traditional thank you note through the mail.”

If that’s not over-thinking and over-analyzing someone’s behavior, then I’m a monkey’s uncle. Does Santos really think that a thank you that arrives in snail-mail reveals a digital dunce? A weak candidate? An unaware candidate?

I pity job hunters who walk away from this article believing they understand the rules better.

Look, I think it’s helpful to see how managers think. There are some good reminders in the article. But the biggest reminder is this: Managers sometimes over-think the hiring process because they don’t have clear criteria about who they want to hire. This leads them to focus on easier, goofier, factors.

The manager who wants a suit, Susan L. Hodas, director of talent management at NERA Economic Consulting, “is also looking for people who can enunciate their words (mumblers beware) and who can communicate their thoughts and ideas clearly.”

That’s just fine — but that suit is gonna cost her because now she’s begging job applicants to give her a good look up and down. Hodas talks about “the airport test” that she and her staff use to judge job applicants: “Would I want to be stuck in the airport for 12 hours with this person if my flight was delayed?”

Stuck in an aiport with me, she’d blow it because I’m a stickler for proper grammar. She insists on good communication skills but fails to use the correct subjunctive mood of the verb to be. She should have said, “…if my flight were delayed.” Is she illiterate? I dunno… but where’s her suit?

Over-thinking the job interview — or any interaction we have with others — is risky. It’s pretty foolhardy — and sometimes costly — to judge so narrowly. The “tips” circulated in articles like this one from The New York Times start to get silly and managers who portray nitpicking as judgment do everyone a disservice.

Let me tell you about a Porsche saleswoman who lost a nice sale because she was thinking too hard about people who walked into her dealership: The Horse’s Ass in the Rear-view Mirror.

I fired her on the spot.


  1. That article was amusing. Last year I was working at a Fortune 10 and before that a Fortune 100, where in both cases the only time I ever saw anyone wear a suit was when they had a TV interview. When we had clients in, the most I’d see the CMO dress up is a tie and sports jacket. In fact the Fortune 10 company told me not to wear a suit because I would stand out too much, I went with a dress shirt and pant and got the job. If you don’t know, ask about the code, I know a number of small marketing companies locally that won’t hire you if you wear a suit, one even states that if you show up with a suit, they won’t hire you.

    But beyond the amusing factor, this really shows that a lot of people don’t know why they hire people. I had a guy work for me whom I couldn’t stand and damn was he a hand full. But wow was that guy the most amazing sales person ever, stick him in front of a client and he was perfection. I certainly wouldn’t want to be stuck in an airport for 12 hours with him, but the guy could sell like nobodies business and frankly, that’s what we hired him for. I think these mangers in the article forgot what they hire people for.

  2. The issue of a thank you note is incredible to me; being one who is very tech savvy, I was raised to know (as others have also) that proper social form is always that a thank you note be on good quality paper only. A thank you note is a personal touch, not an electronic tap. To me it would be the electronic thank you note that would tell me everything I would need to know about a person’s background, not the other way around. That particular company (or in this case individual) rejecting someone because they sent a paper snail mail thank you is one I would reject on social manners alone. This is a prime example of the utter ignorance in the HR departments of this country.

  3. Edward:

    Last year, I co-authored a commentary about the dressing down phenomenon in and out of the workplace:

    “If you walk into a McDonald’s, you will see the staff dressed very neatly and with ties in many cases. It sends the message that they have self-respect, along with a high regard for their customers. Despite earning minimum wage, they display a much higher standard than we see in Casual Corporate America.”

  4. Thanks for the article. We certainly didn’t and still don’t dress that down as described in the article you created. In both companies, our main users of our products were working class people, people who use their hands for a living and don’t wear suits to work. When we visit customers, to walk in wearing a suit would actually send a very impersonal signal to many. Even in my typical business casual, that often came off as over dressed, which for their work environments, would not have worked out too well as everyday attire. Back in the offices where I worked, and today in a small company, jeans were and are still rare. But a full suit, don’t need it and really in the part of the country where I am (MN), I don’t see suits all that often. Dressing with respect is still in, but you don’t need a suit to do that anymore. I am a believer in dressing for the audience while still being authentic. If my computer repair guy walked in with a suit, I’d find that actually kind of odd, not a sign of respect, because I know it’s not him and the clothing has nothing to do with his computer skills.

    As a manger, I won’t hire someone who shows up late without a legit reason like a flat tire or something. If they are late because of poor planning or just lazy, I don’t want them around. I guess you could call that my over thinking aspect. But, for me, I feel it is important for people to be on time. I don’t want someone to keep customers waiting, to me, that shows a lack of respect and I don’t want to get that reputation in the market. I worked for a woman who was ALWAYS late, we lost projects because of it and customers because of it. I refuse to have such a person working for me.

  5. From the article: “he does expect candidates to show up for interviews with printed copies of their résumés.”

    Why? In most cases they will have gotte the resume on email in advance and should have read it – don’t they have printers?

  6. I worked for IBM in the mid-60’s when they were very conservative. Went to one customer’s shop in jeans and got reamed by my mgr. Salesman on the account came to my defense, saying he did the same. The place was a pig sty, inches of greasy dust on everything – and the owner/CEO of the business wore bib overalls. Know consultants specifically told to avoid suits because it made them stand out too much.

  7. @Ray: I’ve had the same experience, more than once. Even recently. And I still fall for it. The US Army asked me to do the keynote at a recent career event at Fort Dix. 1,000 reservists returning from Iraq, looking for jobs. I was glad to do it. The civilian “consultant” who was helping coordinate the event told me to wear a suit to the event. “We’re all wearing suits.” Well, that bugged me, but I figured, when in Rome… just go along. So I show up and the Sgt. Major who was in charge (with whom I’d already spent time) looks at me — “Why are you wearing a suit??” None of the troops (including him) were in dress uniform. They were in Army fatigues. He shook his head at me and laughed when I told him who instructed me. He laughed harder because I listened.

    Lesson: Always use your own judgement.

  8. “Always use or judgement.” Or bring a change of clothes.

    Did you take off your jacket and tie and open your collar? That would seem to have made you casual enough for the situation.

  9. Dang. Sorry for typos.

  10. Very nice article.This information is much required for everyone.After resume,interviews tips are important.Great job…