Job applicants may improve their odds of landing an offer by arriving for an interview rocking one bold yet quirky piece of clothing, from offbeat socks to a campy-colored bow tie, according to new Harvard Business School study.
Dubbed "the Red Sneakers Effect," researchers found that in certain social situations, donning a non-conforming look can send subliminal signals of higher competence - but only if it appears that funky hat or those wild shoes are a deliberate fashion statement.
"If the observer understands that you're doing this on purpose then they're inferring that you can allow yourself to be viewed beyond the norm, that you dictate your own laws, follow your own rules," said Silvia Bellezza, a doctoral candidate in marketing at Harvard Business School and one of three co-authors.
"But it's a judgment call. This kind of non-conformity carries a risk and a cost, including that some people will judge you (negatively)," Bellezza said. "If you feel you are ready to dare and willing to incur the costs, you can get positive feedback."
Bellezza and her colleagues based their findings - published in the Journal of Consumer Research - on a series of laboratory exercises and one field test, spanning more than 500 survey participants.
In one experiment, study co-author Francesca Gino, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard, lectured for 90 minutes at a small-business symposium to nearly 60 male executives while wearing red Converse sneakers. Based on questionnaires later filled out by those men, the guys in attendance who also own "distinctive shoes" generally assumed Gino carried a lofty professional status.
In short: know your audience.
That's especially true when it comes to job interviews, said Elaine Swann, who coaches business etiquette.
"Zany ties or a different type of shoes can work well in different fields - the arts, entertainment, fashion. You should do that to show your creativity," Swann said. "But if you're going for something that's very corporate, you have to do a little reconnaissance first to determine the culture of the company."
That recon work can include a campus walk-through or calling trusted contacts inside the workplace to ask about the dress code, or scanning the employers' Facebook page to check out images of company gatherings, Swann said.
"Taking that risk has much more to do with where you are in your quest for employment. If you need the job yesterday and and bills are piling up, you should play it safe," Swann said. "Make your impression on the other side, once you're hired."
But one of her clients, 28-year-old Dean Hall, snared a new job in November after a successful interview for which he sported a hot-pink bow tie and leopard-print socks and leopard-print loafers.
While that sartorial gamble certainly matched the opening - teaching a fashion style and business class at the Art Institute of California, San Diego - Hall said he also had to remember the larger sensibilities of the city and its people.
"San Diego is such a reserved market. People just don't wear that kind of stuff in this area," Hall said.
But he knows his eye-grabbing getup helped seal the deal.
"I totally do because the tie became a conversation piece and the conversation then became more about my style than my qualifications."