They'd offer you the job if you didn't look like you already have one ... walking the stroll
September 5, 2012 10:39 AM   Subscribe

How do I tell a friend that she looks … unprofessional … and that it’s hurting her job search?

The only reason I’d even bring this up because my friend asked me to help her figure out why she’s been unsuccessful in her job search.

We are former colleagues so I know her work well. She is bright, capable, friendly and well-liked in her current job but she’s been there a long time without a raise (It’s government) and is ready to move on. She started the position while a graduate student and was hired on full-time after she finished her degree.

The problem is her appearance: First, she wears makeup I can only describe as garish. Think: Shave off the eyebrows and draw them back in. Foundation is the wrong color and is noticeably a different shade from her complexion. Her clothes are often tight for her figure. She’s very fit but if it’s too small, it’s too small. And the biggest clincher and the one I think hurts her in our conservative city: Her front tooth is rimmed in gold. Not an entire gold tooth but it’s the first thing you notice when she smiles. I have no idea how to tell her that this is just tacky. And I also realize that dental work isn’t cheap so I don’t know how much she can do right away.

Is there even a reasonably tactful way I can mention these things? I really do think she’d get an offer if her appearance were more polished. She’s had several interviews over the last year with no bites.
posted by nubianinthedesert to Human Relations (33 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
She asked for your advice, therefore, you can give it to her.

You start by saying, "do you want me to sugarcoat this or do you want me to be blunt?" Of course, she'll tell you she wants you to be blunt. You are going to sugarcoat it.
posted by tel3path at 10:42 AM on September 5, 2012 [99 favorites]

Tell her that perhaps she needs to look more professional, without telling her that her current look is tacky/trampy? Suggest what she should look like, rather than talking about what she should stop doing.

Can you make it fun, in a "let's go get makeovers" and "let's go shopping and get you an interview outfit!" kind of way?

Also, i think this is what the nomination process at What Not To Wear is geared towards :)
posted by Kololo at 10:46 AM on September 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

(I agree the gold tooth is a problem, but if she's wearing a navy suit and professional makeup, people will probably get past it.)
posted by Kololo at 10:47 AM on September 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

Do you think your friend is the type of person that would be down for doing a "focus group"? You could offer to take her resume and a photo around to people she doesn't know, that don't know her, ask them if they'd hire her and bring their comments back to her. Undoubtedly they'd mention the same things you have, but it may hurt less coming from strangers. Then you can support her in figuring out if/how to make the changes.
posted by coupdefoudre at 10:49 AM on September 5, 2012

Best answer: Since she asked, I suggest you give her a (short) list of things that might need reviewing.

You can absolutely emphasize the appearance stuff, but if you think she's going to be really hurt or walk away with an overriding "I'm ugly" message, you should include smaller, easily-fixed stuff in separate domains as well:

1. Appearance (makeup, body language, and clothing)
2. Language (word choice, any slang that needs eliminating, etc.)
3. Soft skills (cooperative, able to pick up quickly on changes in the environment, etc.)
4. Better recommendations, better experience, etc.
5. Technical skills (computer programs, etc.)

Then tell her things you are willing to do to help her, like take her to get a makeover at the mall or practice common interview questions. Also tell her things that might be good ideas (like reading "How to Win Friends and Influence People") but that she has to do on her own.

The whole entire thing should be sandwiched between two compliments - she's really bright and well-educated and friendly (to start out) and it's not going to be that hard to fix these things because she's hard-working and capable (to finish.)
posted by SMPA at 10:50 AM on September 5, 2012 [10 favorites]

Maybe you can find an article or blog post (or whatever) -- like "Top 10 Interview Tips" or something -- and go over each point with her. Recognize the things she's doing right and then go over the things that she can work on, like appearance. (Then it's not like it's only coming from you, you know?)
posted by trillian at 10:50 AM on September 5, 2012

Tell her to model for you what she'd wear for an interview, and focus on fixing her clothing. first, then address her makeup, and don't mention the tooth and don't call her "tacky". If you get the other two addressed, then that one shouldn't matter so much.

"I don't think that's appropriate for an interview, and you definitely can't get away with that at most offices. Want to go shopping together? Let's talk budget..."

"OK now for your makeup. Will you wash your face and give me a shot at creating a more understated look for you, and we'll see what you think?"
posted by juliplease at 10:51 AM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

She asked for your opinion. I agree with tel3path, just say, "You know, I say this with much love, but you need a makeover. If you want, we can do a day at the mall. Start at the makeup counter, then hit the sales for an interview outfit or two. Also, I know that you think it's the bomb-diggity, but gold teeth don't fly in the corporate world. Is there anything you can do about the tooth?"

Either she's serious and ready to hear it, or she'll fight you. No matter what, you tried.

No good friend will fault you for giving your honest opinion.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:51 AM on September 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Replying as a person who is very oblivious to half of this and if I had to worry about a lot of this, I'd find it overwhelming (but then also feel hurt if I heard half of that), so from that perspective:

• I would actually start out by saying, "I do have other suggestions for you, but I don't want to hurt your feelings and I can help you along the way. In an effort to try to get you a job/better career, would you mind if I gave you suggestions for physical presentation during the interview? Please decide if you want me to give this to you or goal is to help you and not hurt your feelings." (This way, she is prepared;don't say can I say anything and launch into this...).

• If you are going to tell her all that (makeup, clothes), can you offer to help her with some of this For my first faculty interview and then corporate interview, I had a friend come along shopping with me...because who the HELL knows that stuff? Overwhelming, painful....A friend can help.

• Don't overwhelm her...there are simple solutions probably for all of this (she can smile less during the interview), but you can probably do enough things to help her succeed now.
posted by Wolfster at 10:56 AM on September 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Try telling her, "You can either dress for the board room or the bedroom, dressing for one with not get you the other." Worked for my friend.
posted by JujuB at 10:56 AM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: By the way, many good ideas here. I have thought about going to the makeup counter together.
posted by nubianinthedesert at 10:57 AM on September 5, 2012

Tell her to model for you what she'd wear for an interview, and focus on fixing her clothing. first, then address her makeup,

This, and given her work history this could easily be framed in a "no longer a student or bureaucrat" way, where both the "real world" and the current economy call for upping your game bigtime to make a great first impression.
posted by headnsouth at 10:58 AM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another thing you could do is go to a department store together and actually take the shop person up on the offer of "can I help you with anything" instead of saying no thanks. At any high quality department store, the person will be able to point you guys toward business and interview-appropriate pieces and helpfully suggest styling and accessorizing tips.

Since it's coming from an outside person who doesn't know her, and not you, her friend, there is a much better chance that it be read as a neutral assessment than a judgment on her character.

These are tricky waters (being tactful but direct when specifically asked for your opinion) and I've been there before. I'm pretty bad at it myself, which is why I think it may be easier for you to farm the judging out, so to speak.
posted by phunniemee at 11:03 AM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Even fit/thin women often want to be smaller, and she may be wearing clothes that are too tight because she thinks she'll someday lose that weight or because she thinks they maker her look thinner. A good fit is best, but after that I find I often look better when I wear clothes that are a little too big, vs. a little too small, even though it's counter-intuitive. Perhaps you could introduce her to this concept?
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:08 AM on September 5, 2012

From a friendship perspective, stress that you don't think she's tacky, you only worry that the hiring offices might think her tooth is tacky. You're not skewering her clothing sense in general, she just needs to find the perfect interview outfit.
Part of being tactful is being ready to back down. It doesn't matter that you're almost certainly right - all you can really offer her is your "opinion". She might say things like "this is who I am, there's no reason to hide that!" and "if it's the kind of place I'd have to dress like that, I don't want their job anyway" and "if I pretend to be someone else, they'll just be disappointed after I'm hired and the job won't last". For the health of the friendship you're limited to one counterargument before you gracefully fold with "It's your job search, I'm sure you have the best feel for it of anybody," and give a mystified shrug every time she wonders about her lack of offers. You don't have to force the change, just say your piece and shut up.
(If that's the way she goes, for your one counterargument I'd suggest emphasis on how interviewing is an old-fashioned ritual with rules that are very different from holding a job, from going on a date, and from pretty much every other situation on the planet, and that the effort of following those obscure rules is seen as an indication that you're serious about wanting a job, rather than expectation that you truly are your interview persona.)
posted by aimedwander at 11:13 AM on September 5, 2012

I once had my boss tell me to smarten up so as to dress for the promotion I was up for. No offence was intended or taken. My boss then made a point of complimenting me on any and all efforts I made in the right direction...

So she may be fine about this. On the other hand she may be quite invested in her style such as it is because some of her choices seem to be designed to make a statement. If she is genuinely oblivious she may be taken aback but should soon realise that the advice is well intentioned and fair and get on with fixing stuff. If she's deliberate in her choices it's not going to go down well at all but then she perhaps needs to re-consider her intended future roles.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:19 AM on September 5, 2012

For backup on aimedwander's position that who you are in an interview isn't who you are in real life, I refer you to this previous question on beards.
posted by phunniemee at 11:22 AM on September 5, 2012

For best results, let her hear it from you and someone else: Preeminent business-wear researcher John Molloy. This book is more than 20 years old, but everything is based on research. Thousands of men and women have used these books to improve their appearance at the office and get promoted. It's hard to argue with success. I know the book is out of print, but that just means you can pick up a copy used for two or three dollars. Even better.

Dress for Success for Women.
posted by seasparrow at 11:29 AM on September 5, 2012

I've been the person others ask for clothing advice many times. I think you can tell her everything you said here, only don't make it about how what she's doing is wrong. Make it about how many industries and/or interviewers can be more lame/boring/conservative than what she's used to, so she needs to play their game and conform a bit to avoid getting rejected over something silly. Even though I like to think I know how to dress myself, if someone more knowledgeable gave me advice about how to dress for a particular kind of situation that I hadn't been in before, I'd be grateful and not take that as an insult to my own style at all.

Also, when you suggest specific things to fix, spin them in a positive way. Say she currently has bold makeup and sexy clothes and bad-ass dentistry (or something) but it might be worth trying some natural makeup and classic clothes and, if she can afford it, removing the gold, to see if that helps with her job search.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 12:02 PM on September 5, 2012 [9 favorites]

The good thing about giving professional wardrobe advice, especially as a friend and not as a coworker/supervisor/HR person, is that you can frame business-appropriate grooming as a necessary evil rather than a mandate you personally believe in. As a result, you can broach this subject without expressing any disdain for her current look.

Introduce it as a matter of interview procedure, like the cover letter and nice resume paper, rather than personal style. I'd say something along the lines of "Some companies are image-based and/or conservative and expect interviewees to conform to a fairly rigid standard, but some aren't, and you can't always tell which is which before you arrive at the office. So, to hedge your bets, it's always best to dress super-professionally." If that makes sense to her, offer to be her makeover/shopping assistant, and guide her through the finer points. When you can, phrase things in terms of what interviewers like to see, not what she's doing wrong: e.g. "The most professional-looking suits tend to have this sort of cut and fit" rather than "that skirt you have looks sloppy." You can throw in reminders that you recognize a lot of these rules are sort of arbitrary: "It's kind of outdated and silly, but some corporate dress codes insist on closed-toe pumps, so that's the style of shoe I'd recommend."

I clean up well when I have to, but I'd really rather wear sweatpants to work and I think "professional" dress codes are obnoxious, so this is coming from that perspective. Recognizing the dress code's ridiculousness, and the fact that it has nothing to do with the person inside, scores a lot of points with me.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:22 PM on September 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

Don't be so quick to pitch it an interviewing costume.

An employer who expects interviewees to look sharp won't tolerate street-walker-looking clothing and make-up day to day, where the dress down would be to khakis, flats and no makeup beyond a little lipstick. This is a permanent change in 9 to 5 approach.

Hard to talk about that tooth - kind of like tatoo removal, no?
posted by MattD at 12:38 PM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

"You know you're a beautiful woman, but the businesses in this town are super conservative, and they're just going to be put off by your style. Tight-fitting clothes and bright makeup are seen as unprofessional by the folks doing hiring. Can I point some possibilities out to you that might fit in more with our city's corporate culture?"

If your friend is a Black or Hispanic woman, racism is going to be part of the picture as well. At least here in super-racist Boston, white women can get away with a lot less conservative clothing, makeup, and hairstyles; interviewers are much quicker to judge Black and Latina women for being "unprofessional". Obviously this is a great big complicated issue, but (I assume you self-identify as Black from your user name, apologies if I'm mistaken) maybe your own experiences and perspectives may be important data points for her?
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:54 PM on September 5, 2012 [22 favorites]

Is there someone well-known who she vaguely resembles? I think that making some comparison with the celebrity is a fairly tactful way to get into this "Ohmidog, you look just like Nina Simone! Even more if you let your eyebrows grow out like hers!" or whatever. The tooth doesn't thrill me but it doesn't bother me as much as the eyebrows. And if she's of color, finding a foundation that works with her skin tone can be a huge task, or so friends tell me.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:54 PM on September 5, 2012

"I've been trying to figure out why somebody as awesome as you are isn't getting more job offers. It kills me to say this, because I love your style-- but I think the way you dress may be preventing potential employers from recognizing how great you are. Just as an experiment, what if you tried [INSERT FASHION TIPS HERE]?"
posted by yankeefog at 1:02 PM on September 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

Just like one would get computer skills training or a certificate in [something] in order to qualify for a higher paying position, one can frame this as 'cosmetic changes' geared towards lowering the barriers to the type of jobs, positions, companies and salary scales.

Remove the interpersonal aspect of it and make it into a third party element of an overhaul of "what it takes to move up and out" of the career rut she's in.

It may then be easier - as in "this is your private life persona" and this is the "costume you'd wear for interviews and/or work" sort of like a uniform. Nothing personal.
posted by infini at 1:11 PM on September 5, 2012

Also, at some point, don't forget to also point out what she is doing right...and that can be anything from hair and nails, to a great pair of shoes already in her closet or a blouse that does flatter her, to her demeanor and can do attitude.
posted by anitanita at 1:16 PM on September 5, 2012

I think it's important to frame this as a camouflage/fitting in issue, not "the thing you're doing is wrong."

It's not that what she's doing is wrong. It's that she's heading into an environment where the corporate culture is a little bit different than her usual circle.

I mean, hey, you wouldn't wear a three-piece suit and tie to the beach. This is the same kind of thing: there's a culture, and here's how you can adapt to it: [list of suggestions].

Also, she should definitely read "Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers" by Lois Frankel. It covers a lot of these issues, and much more.
posted by ErikaB at 1:50 PM on September 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

"An employer who expects interviewees to look sharp won't tolerate street-walker-looking clothing and make-up day to day, where the dress down would be to khakis, flats and no makeup beyond a little lipstick. This is a permanent change in 9 to 5 approach."

It's not always that stark — there are lots of jobs where the interview dress is way more formal than the everyday. I'm pretty sure that everyone at my current job interviewed in suits or classy dresses, but the only time anyone gives a shit at the office is when the board is there.
posted by klangklangston at 5:35 PM on September 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Why I wanted to state my white lady opinion that racism is likely to be a complicating factor if your friend is Black and/or Latina is because holy shit I have been part of so many interview committees with other white people who were so incredibly biased about policing Black and Latina candidates' appearances and would happily vent about candidates' "ghetto nails" and "chola eyebrows" and unbelievable shit like that. My experience of my fellow white colleagues who thought they were anti-racists was that their racism and classism would come out like whoa in the "safe" outlet of evaluating whether job candidates' appearance was "professional" or not.

So my apologies for restating something so obvious to people who have experienced racism from my privileged perspective. I was shocked to hear people being so direct in their prejudices about this stuff, especially at supposedly progressive educational and non-profit institutions.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:13 PM on September 5, 2012 [8 favorites]

Yeah, as other posters noted, I wonder about your friend's race. If both of you are nonwhite*, that might actually present a good opportunity for broaching the makeover topic. I know I've discussed self presentation in terms of "You know how white people get when they see us look/do X.... You know we have to look/do Y to fit in." That reframes her unprofessional look as an "us vs. them" issue. It allows you to stake out a position of being cool with her look while pointing out that others, because of their own issues, might not be.

As Sidhedevil notes, the line between rejecting a candidate because of racism can be reframed as unprofessionalism so easily by the hiring committee. Not only would you be pointing that out to your friend, you'd also make the criticism easier to swallow by reframing in reverse: it's no longer her unprofessionalism, but rather employers' racism that she has to compensate for. You might even get her to change her gold rimmed tooth with that argument.

(*This gets tricky, but I've had similar discussions with or about white friends whose style choices, or even names, might bump them into categories where others feel free to discriminate against them.)
posted by lesli212 at 7:20 PM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

> So my apologies for restating something so obvious to people who have experienced racism from my privileged perspective. I was shocked to hear people being so direct in their prejudices about this stuff, especially at supposedly progressive educational and non-profit institutions.

Seconded. Not that she should change her appearance just because of judgmental shit (racist or not) that people say behind other people's backs, mind you, but she's kinda lighting up the switchboard for social-class-based doubts about her credentials. I'm not suggesting that she swing so conservative in personal style that she's clumping around feeling like she's wearing a full-body-costume of Some Other Lady, though. Just that in the list of risky personal-appearance choices for professional women, she's tipped way over the balancing point.

How does she feel about her style? What do the tight clothes, the gold-rim tooth, the makeup, etc. mean to her? Maybe you can help her discover some other ways to convey what she wants to convey, like softly-clingy dresses that show off her figure without looking tacky.

Prioritizing, too -- she could likely get away with keeping one visually-loud habit, but not two within close proximity! For example, if she wants to keep the gold-rim tooth, she's gotta dial all the makeup down to a natural look. If she is totally devoted to super-dramatic eye makeup, fine, but I'd advise ditching the gold-rim tooth.
posted by desuetude at 7:20 PM on September 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

For best results, let her hear it from you and someone else: Preeminent business-wear researcher John Molloy. This book is more than 20 years old

Although there might be good ideas in principle, I would be really wary about using a style book that is this old. Even in the conservative world of businesswear, fashion changes a lot. I've been watching Murphy Brown recently, which is set in a newsroom in the late 80s/early 90s, and both the men and women's clothing looks very much of its time. I read a similar book that was about 20yrs old at the time - I think it was by a Color ME Beautiful person - and it suggested things like 'a woman's earrings in the office are as important as a man's tie'. Things can change a lot.

What you could do is head to your local department store to see a personal shopper - these are usually free. Tell her that you're going to refresh your business wardrobe and suggest she comes along, as she's having a lot of interviews. She won't even realise it's about her.
posted by mippy at 7:17 AM on September 6, 2012

Although there might be good ideas in principle, I would be really wary about using a style book that is this old. Even in the conservative world of businesswear, fashion changes a lot.… I read a similar book that was about 20yrs old at the time - I think it was by a Color ME Beautiful person - and it suggested things like 'a woman's earrings in the office are as important as a man's tie'. Things can change a lot.

It's my impression (having worked in offices at fairly-to-extremely large corporations and non-profits for the last quarter century) that this is a true statement. I have never seen a female C-suite executive wearing chandelier or door-knocker earrings. I have seen many low-level female employees wearing earrings a tennis ball could fit through. Similarly, I've seen lower-level male employees wearing ties that no C-suite executive male would wear.

Earrings are a signifier, just like ties are.

With recommendations for books like Color Me Beautiful and Dress For Success, it's generally a matter of "ignore the specific fashion recommendations, pay attention to the more general ideas about how and what fashion signals non-verbally".

If there's a Nordstrom or other store that offers a personal-shopper service, that might be worth a visit. The advantage of an uninvolved third party is that they can give feedback you might be uncomfortable giving.
posted by Lexica at 7:17 PM on September 6, 2012

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