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Some job seekers may need extreme makeover

Sloppy attire and a lack of grooming are not going to cut it in this economy, human resource managers say, no matter what the industry. So you may have to turn up the style-o-meter.
Duane Hoffmann /

Stephen Staffieri of New York always considered himself pretty stylish, but he started to wonder about his look after several job interviews led nowhere.

Out of work since he was laid off in August from his job as a campus recruiter for JPMorgan, Staffieri, 28, knew he had the credentials to find another position in human resources. But something seemed to be holding him back.

He sought advice from David A. McKnight, an image consultant he met through a mutual friend. Staffieri’s appearance is now more polished — and his confidence level has exploded.

Sloppy attire and a lack of grooming are just not going to cut it in this economy, human resource managers say, no matter what the industry. So you may have to turn up the style-o-meter. Hiring managers already are noticing that a growing number of job seekers seem to be dressing for success.

Staffieri's image tweaks included tailoring his suit so it fit properly; getting rid of the cloth messenger bag he slung over his shoulder and replacing it with a briefcase; exchanging his comfortable shoes for a shiny, leather pair; and combing his hair to the side instead of the middle to mask his receding hairline.

“I feel like a million dollars,” he said, adding that he’s now doing better in interviews.

Many employers around the country are inundated with qualified and overqualified applicants for every job they need to fill, which means they can be pickier than ever. And I don’t mean just choosy when it comes to job qualifications.

“They have to stand out from the rest, in the right way,” said Chris Cappas, vice president of employment and training for Harrah’s Las Vegas region. That means no halter tops or flip-flops, even if you're just coming in to fill out an application. “The competition is fierce.”

Appearance can separate you from the pack, said John Haynes, human resource director for Johnson Controls Inc. in Capital Heights, Md. “It can (even) help you lose an opportunity if you don’t present well.”

Fierce competition
Miller Canning learned that lesson after she was laid off from her job doing Web strategy for a homebuilder 18 months ago. For the first time in her technology career, she had trouble finding a new gig.

“I was stunned I wasn’t getting any offers,” she recalled. “My resume is robust.”

Canning, 51, who lived in Washington and recently relocated to Charlotte, N.C., looked in the mirror.

She had been letting her hair go gray and was used to the casual dress in the technology industry. In interviews, she usually wore casual trousers and a shirt, sometimes a denim jacket.

She decided it was time for an image overhaul. She dyed her hair, bought a killer brown wrap dress and beefed up her accessories.

Her reinvented look paid off. She landed a job in e-commerce with home improvement company Lowe’s and started work on April 13.

“Competition is just so fierce right now,” she said. “You need any edge that you can get.”

I know, it’s disheartening to hear that you won’t be judged solely on experience and background but also by the way you look.

Unfortunately, that’s just part of human nature, and the tough economy is only making image  more important, said David Sarwer, associate professor of psychology for the Center for Human Appearance at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

“For hiring managers, it’s clearly a buyer’s market,” he said. “They can be more selective ... not only hold out for the most qualified but the person who’s the most physically attractive.”

That doesn't mean you have to take drastic measures to improve your appearance. With so much hype about plastic surgery and job seeking lately, the reality is that the number of people choosing to go under the knife is actually on the decline.

What hiring managers say they are looking for is not someone who has skin that’s as taut as a piano string but someone who looks put together and professional.

Job seekers may even want to consider dropping a few pounds.

Weight Watchers has seen an influx of unemployed people signing up recently, said Aransas Thomas, who leads classes in New York.

“I see people coming in who are feeling crummy about themselves because they’re out of work, and most have a reduction in confidence,” she added.

The key, she said, is feeling better about you — both internally and externally.

Sadly, bias against overweight people is a reality in the workplace.

“It appears being overweight can work against you, particularly women. Being obese works against both men and women,” said Patricia Roehling, professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, Mich., who has studied the impact of weight among managers in corporate America.

Alas, there are no federal laws and few state laws that protect individuals who are discriminated against based on their weight or their lack of attractiveness.

And attractiveness is subjective, said David Grinberg, a spokesman for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Some hiring officials may interpret such a directive to mean targeting or excluding workers based on traits related to race, national origin, religion, gender, age or because someone has a disability.” Which is, of course, illegal discrimination.

Reinventing your look
Looking fit also seems to be a selling point. Bob S., 47, a former Google manager from Saratoga, Calif., has been looking for an IT management job since June. To help in his job search, he dropped 35 pounds, thanks to bicycling; colored his hair; started wearing contacts to interviews; and now keeps his eyebrows trimmed. (He did not want his full name used for fear of affecting his job search.)

“All these feel vain, but maybe they'll help,” he said.

It’s not easy for everyone to update their look or lose weight on their own. You may want to enlist the help of a fitness trainer, a stylish friend or even invest some money on a style consultant.

McKnight, who helped revamp Staffieri’s image, has gotten so much interest from unemployed New Yorkers that he started a new service for the jobless. He offers a $300, three-hour makeover package, compared to the $150 an hour he usually charges.

For those who want to go it alone, Dallas-based image consultant Kimberly Bohanon offers some simple style tips to help spruce up your look:

  • If you haven’t updated your wardrobe in several years, invest in some new clothes. Buy quality pieces that are interchangeable.
  • Your clothing should fit you well. If you are successful at finding ready-to-wear items off the rack, count yourself lucky. Often, minor alterations are needed in order to achieve optimum fit.
  • Well-manicured hands and regularly trimmed hair are a must. If you haven’t updated your hairstyle in many years, it’s time to consider making some changes.
  • Wrinkled or stained clothing look highly unprofessional.
  • For many, shoes are a go-to accessory that add class and give insight to one’s personality.

Oh, the shoes. They can mean more than you think.

Dawn Gum, managing partner at Interior Architecture & Design in Research Triangle Park, N.C., recalls interviewing an entry-level applicant who had a great portfolio. She also had on a great pair of pea-green pumps with brown leather detailing.

“She got the job, and we've joked with her ever since that we hired her because of her shoes,” she said.