Managing People

What candidates say in an interview isn't the only clue to their personality. Check clothing and appearance for yet another piece of the story

The CEO of a retail clothing business in New York City is looking for a successor. He's hired a high-powered executive-search firm to do his recruiting, and he asks me to join him in interviewing his top three choices.

One of the finalists is a fellow in his early forties who is in startlingly good physical shape. He has a precisely trimmed beard and a completely shaved head. His appearance strikes me as unusual for a middle-aged man -- overly fastidious and somehow too calculated. This impression is reinforced by the fact that the faint shadow of a hairline reveals that he had a full head of hair before shaving it off. The man is also wearing a mustard-colored sport shirt with the two top buttons undone, a tailored Brooks Brothers navy blazer, and charcoal gray pants. His appearance perplexes me, since I'm not sure what the various components of his costume and appearance are meant to communicate.

How would you judge such an interviewee? And what would you do in this situation?

About 20 minutes into our interview I can no longer stand not knowing the message behind the way this fellow is visually presenting himself, so I say, "I'm confused by your appearance. Feel free to be candid or diplomatic, but what are you trying to say about yourself?"

"I think an executive should have a look," the man says.

"A look?" I repeat, still confused.

"Yes," he says, "a striking appearance." And he then launches into a discussion of executive leadership and the importance of distinguishing oneself from the worker bees.

Over the past 30 years I've interviewed hundreds of executives, but few of them looked like this man. In each case, when arranging these meetings, I always ask the candidates to dress informally. Generally, either they show up overdressed, wearing a conservative suit and tie in earth tones, or if they choose to pay attention to my request, they wear an expensive polo shirt and nicely pressed khakis. This fellow was obviously sending a different sort of message. I thought his appearance was important, and I raised a lot of questions about it. Which made me think: What if he were either six feet eight or four feet eight? Would that make a difference, too? What if he were in his early twenties or over 60? Would it matter if he spoke with a British or a Brooklyn accent? If he were sitting in a wheelchair? And should those clues matter as much as his behavior? What if he had shown up late? Was he prepared or unprepared, relaxed or tense, articulate or inarticulate?

Rationally, you would think that appearance alone wouldn't count for much, but human nature is generally complex and often far from rational. Most of us tend to make up stories about people based on such initial impressions. Which means these small but potent clues to personality do matter, especially during job interviews -- perhaps more than they should.

For example, an attractive woman in her midthirties with a very short buzz cut enters the room. Why is she wearing her hair that way? One possible scenario is that she's had chemotherapy, and everything that suggests. Another is that she's sending a message about her sexuality, or the degree to which being fashionable matters to her. But is any of that relevant to the job opening and the skills needed to succeed at it? Legally, you may not ask questions that delve into a candidate's personal life, yet many of us still ask those very questions in our own minds.

In an interview situation, strong initial impressions are usually formed during the first 30 seconds, or so most research tells us. And those impressions are almost always influenced by our personal biases. Therefore, it's very important to be aware of your biases about people -- and how they contribute to the stories you make up about them. And don't delude yourself that you're immune from those kinds of judgments.

Here's one more story.

Several years ago, a public-service ad for the Urban Alliance on Race Relations won a Clio Award. (The Clios are the Academy Awards for the best in advertising worldwide.) In the ad, a young African American man with a shaved head and an unsmiling face appears on the screen. To the beat of music and what sounds like a person being lashed, the following words slowly scroll down the screen: "Michael Conrad. Male. Age 28. Armed robbery. Assault and battery. Rape. Murder. Apprehended January 1994 by Police Lieutenant Joseph Cruthers." The tag line, displayed above the same image, was the kicker: "Shown here."