"My friend and I were going together to a careers fair. He turned up in a smart jacket and trousers and I was wearing an old pair of cargos and a sweat shirt. We were both surprised, so I thought I'd ask - does it matter?"
It might matter, Andrew. There are risks in talking to potential employers when you're not dressed appropriately. This question crops up regularly so I thought I'd review the issues for everyone.
The people you meet are often on talent-spotting point duty for an organisation. They'll be on the lookout for people who engage positively, come across well and have a committed interest in a relevant line of work. People who stand out above the herd, if you will.
How you look and dress shouldn't matter, but the fact is it does. If you see a person in the street wearing rags, looking dishevelled, drinking from a bottle in a brown paper bag and pushing a supermarket trolley full of junk along, you'll no doubt assume they're a tramp and steer away.
They might not be a bona fide tramp. They could be a student on their way home after a serious night out or perhaps an actor who's practising getting into character, but you'll automatically make that assumption.
Likewise, a talent-spotter at a careers fair will see someone smart and presume they're serious about themselves and their interest in a career. They'll engage positively with an open mind. They'll take the trouble to dig a little deeper and see what scope there is to match the person's interests with suitable opportunities.
It's not unknown for senior staff and even CEOs to attend so you might have a real opportunity to show the best of yourself to someone who can make a real difference to your prospects.
Regardless of who it is, if you look like you fit the bill you may find your name gets passed forward, ready for when your application comes in. That would be great news. You'd have added a useful contact to your network and they'd have referred you forward with a positive recommendation. If you then apply, you can be sure you'll at least get a hearing and fair consideration.
The downside happens when you roll up unshaven, with torn jeans and your red-neck tats on display. You might be the best and most creative potential marketeer on the entire planet, but if the person looking at you thinks you're a tramp, they'll encourage you to seek opportunities elsewhere so they can get on with meeting the likely candidates out there. They shouldn't, but they probably will.
Worse, if you're persistent (normally a truly laudable quality every talent-spotter looks out for) and they make a note of your name because it does look like you really will apply for something, you may find they add "grubby and unkempt" to that note. You'll have possibly blown a major opportunity straight out of the skies.
"What's that terrible stench?" you may find yourself asking.
"Oh, that's kerosene, your career opportunity here crashed and burned," may be the answer you'll never hear from the talent-scout, because you're already dead and she won't waste the breath.
Why take the risk of excluding yourself from, literally, a major life-enhancing opportunity just because you want to exert your rights to self-expression? Think about it: your job; your salary; where you'll live; your friends; your impact on the planet and even your future partner and the genetic construction of your off-spring can all be influenced by where you end up working.
No pressure, but washing, putting some clean clothes on and showing some respect might well significantly up your chances of getting some of the latter back, expressed in the form of a dream job and a serious pay-packet.
If you want to work in marketing and get out of your mind on pills and booze in that search for a creative nirvana (if that's the culture of the employer), then wait until you've got the job before you dial into it. Don't roll up with glow-in-the-dark eyes and reeking of last night's tequila shots. It's not professional and it won't cut the mustard for you.
What if you're just on an information gathering exercise and not planning to meet anyone? Dress wouldn't matter then, would it?
Actually it would.
At the very least, I'd suggest that you're missing out on a major networking opportunity by not speaking to anyone, but actually people will try to speak to you regardless - that's what they're there for. If you look the part, they'll welcome you with open arms and hope in their hearts. If you don't, they'll open a dialogue to move you on quickly.
Always remember, people are busy and it's competitive out there. Like most people in the world of work, recruiters ultimately vote 'Darwin' every day of the week and the strong survive.
Maybe it shouldn't be that way. But it is.
My advice is always "Dress to thrill, hunt to kill!".
Some people feel very strongly on the subject, as this recent discussion on the forum shows - Dressing down >>>
My book covers much more detail on this subject and is 'must-read' for anyone on a job hunt. It's called “Winning That Job: A kill or be-killed guide to job-search and interview preparation” and you can pick up it up as an e-book or paperback here on Amazon >>>
Keywords: careers fair, interview, application, dress, appearance, meeting, Darwin.