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Let Your Freak Flag Fly! How to Present a Professional Image While Being True to Who You Are

I was being interviewed by a reporter for a career website, and we got to the part about dress code and presenting a professional image. It is my opinion that you always wear a suit, or at least a jacket to any interview, no matter the company’s dress code. Her response question was interesting, "But, what if that's just not who you are?" This woman was self-described as alternative with a nearly full sleeve of tattoos on both arms and multiple body piercings. That got me to thinking, how do you present a professional image and still be you?

In matters of dress and personal appearance, you want the interview to be about you and your substance, not your style, but for some, your style is your substance. So, sure, put on a nice suit, and go have a great interview. The problem is if this is completely not you, it’s akin to having a serious conversation wearing a toga. Dressing so completely opposite to who you are will completely throw you off of your game. They had a name for it back when I was in high school; it was called being a Poser. How can your prospective new employer get to know you when you are pretending to be someone else?

That was a rhetorical question; you can't. So what then? You want the job, but you’re afraid they'll think they are interviewing the girl with the dragon tattoo. To me the answer is simple. Don't change who you are; just be the most professional version of you that you can. But, how?

Skip the mall.

The first thing to do is not go shopping. If you're like me that is a drag because you look for any reason to go shopping, but for the rest of the rational world this should be of some relief. The problems with running out to buy a new outfit:

  •  It’s expensive.
  • It’s hard to get a great fit right off of the rack.
  • You may never wear it again.
  • You probably don't know what to look for in the first place.  

 Instead, shop in your closet. Every guy probably owns a sport coat they've worn to church or some semi-formal affair. Go with that, clean-pressed slacks and a nicely starched shirt. This guy is a professional and ready to talk business. For women it’s even easier; pick a somewhat conservative dress and a sweater or basic jacket. 

Wearing something you like from your closet may help you to feel more comfortable and that can translate into a better interview performance.  

Reveal what you want when you want.

The sweater or jacket you choose actually serves a couple of purposes. First, even though it may be 110 degrees in the shade outside it will likely be freezing from AC in the office. Second, if you have mad ink and aren't ready to bust out the guns yet, this is a great way to keep them under wraps. And, who knows, if the timing seems right and the mood strikes, you may even take the sweater off. You are in control and can decide how much you want to let them base their hiring decision on your style. 

Consider a toned down version.

So, what if you have more metal than Iron Man?  I met a recent graduate who was applying for a recruiter position on my team. I like to interview people first, and if they pass muster with me, I forward them down the chain. She was great, personable and talented, but my hang up was she was wearing what I think was a jean suit and had more piercings than I could count. So, I asked her a favor. I told her that I liked her and let her know our workplace was a bit conservative. I suggested she tone down her personal style a little. Specifically, remove all but two earrings in each ear, switch the nose hoop for a stud and remove her lip piercing. Oh, and wear a simple suit. Surprisingly, she did and had a great interview with her potential manager. We made her an offer, and she turned us down. In the end we just weren’t her kind of company.

And that, I think, is the moral of the story. I had asked her to change too much, but if she had come in originally somewhere between what she was and what I asked her to be, it probably wouldn’t have been an issue. Like they used to say on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, “It isn’t a makeover, it’s a make better.” Be the best, most professional version of you, and let your experience, talent and personality win the day. Once you are in you can slowly bring them around to being more open than they ever thought they would.

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