What to Wear for Informal and Informational Interviews

informational interviewsWhat’s the best way to dress for informational/informal interviews that may or may not lead to “real” job interviews? Should you play it safe and wear a suit, or is it appropriate to dress a bit on the casual side? Reader L wonders…

I was invited to have “a conversation” with a very powerful woman at a foundation where I would love to work. For the initial conversation, I was advised to wear business casual. I felt my choices were right on — sleek understated black pants, closed-toed shoes with some skin showing, a high-end plum jacket in wool crepe, and some very interesting but not flashy jewelry. My conversational partner wore exactly the same components, but my choices were a couple steps dressier than hers.

The conversation went well, and we will continue our discussions. My question is what to wear to the next meeting. I have a summer suit I would be inclined to wear; even though it’s casual (navy/white linen tweed pants with a matching open jacket), it is more serious than anything I’ve observed at the foundation. But, I’m not sure if this meeting is the time to wear it. What if this meeting is then followed by a formal interview? I will already have worn my best choice for an interview suit.

Congratulations on starting the conversation, Reader L! These casual interviews are always nerve-wracking, whether they’re informational interviews, internal interviews, or even everyone’s favorite, the “not-an-interview interview over coffee.” Previously, we’ve talked about how to dress for a kind of “pre-interview” that might lead to a real one, what to wear for an “informal” interview, and what to wear for a networking lunch, and I think your outfit instincts sound spot on thus far. A few notes though:

  • First, is there a job open there? This is always a good question to ask during these “let’s have a conversation!” non-interviews. Are they creating a new position? Or is this a capacity where you may be able to do some freelance work/consulting? Is it at all possible that the foundation is recruiting you to be a board member or to otherwise volunteer or contribute to the foundation? I’m going to assume going forward that there is a job there.
  • For the second meeting with her, I would definitely say the summer suit is a good choice because it sounds like what I would call a “fun” suit, like the ones we profile every week in the Suit of the Week. It’s a linen tweed, which will probably wrinkle, and you say it’s summery. If it’s a casual office I think this would be fine, but considering the degree of formality you’re already at — I think I agree that an actual interview suit would require another step up from this. So: wear the summer suit for the second “conversation.”
  • For the actual interview, obviously know your office (and your region), but I would suggest going as formal and conservative as possible. Here’s why:
    • If the interview is with board members of the foundation, you will likely be meeting with people working outside the foundation — these are often partners at law firms, bigwigs at banks, and people from other conservative industries. You may even have to go to their offices to interview. (I know this was the case when I worked for a non-profit — my final interview was at the office of the president of the board, not at the non-profit’s office. My future boss was not in attendance; this was my first time meeting the Very Important Person with whom I was interviewing.) A conservative suit, if you have one, reads as “interview appropriate” no matter what kind of situation you’re walking into.
    • Even if it’s an interview with the powerful woman you’ve already met with, I say, dress up a little — it shows you want the job. You may want to add a familiar touch you wouldn’t have added otherwise, to show a bit of personality — a statement necklace, or a bright accessory — but I’d still say to stick with a conservative suit.

Readers who’ve interviewed and worked with foundations, charities, non-profits, and not-for-profits, what is your advice for Reader L? For “casual interviews” in general, how do you choose your outfit, and how do you “step it up” as you move through the interview (or non-interview) process?

(Pictured at top: Black & White, originally uploaded to Flickr by Kevin Spencer.)

—————

N.B. These substantive posts are intended to be a source of community comment on a particular topic, which readers can browse through without having to sift out a lot of unrelated comments. And so, although of course we highly value all comments by our readers, we’re going to ask you to please keep your comments on topic; threadjacks will be deleted at our sole discretion and convenience. Thank you for your understanding!

Comments

  1. I’ve never interviewed with a foundation or non-profit but work with several of them. Not sure if my comment would apply to Reader L’s situation but I would revisit the mission/vision of the foundation and align myself to it. What I mean is that if your foundation services low income families, you don’t want to show up to the interview in a $1000 suit with your $250 shoes and $500 bag(not saying you would but giving an example). It sends out a message of refinement but also that you might not be able to reach the target group of your foundation. You should still dress well and professional as Kat has mentioned but I would be mindful of what I choose and how it is presented. You want to look good but not too good that it seems as if the foundation is not right for you. I work with low income communities (not even directly but through a non-profit) and I don’t carry or wear anything too expensive there because it sends the wrong message. How can you say that you care about them and want to help them when you won’t donate your extra dollars to them but buy yourself a $1000 bag to tote around your papers? Just a thought. Again, it might not apply to you.

    • TucsonCPA :

      I totally agree with Pam on this – being in touch with your potential employer is always important, but especially in a non-profit, where every employee tends to be a representative of the organization in the community, even when off the clock and the mission and population served can vary so widely. I’m on the board of directors for a community center (like a YMCA) and this is something we evaluate carefully when we hire.

    • I supose I do agree with the 2 OP’s on dress garb, but it usueally never pay’s to UNDER-Dress, meaning go formal if you don’t know any better. You can always dress like a schlub AFTER they hire you!

      When I was an intern for the FEDERAL goverment, I worked with a guy who NEVER changed his pant’s. They were shiny and smelley and he did NOT even blink when I told him he stunk like petrified B.O. In his mind, b/c he was NOT being paid as a lawyer, he would NOT have to dress like one. I think that lawyers who smell funny are NOT good for the profession. DOUBEL FOOEY! on smelley lawyer’s!

    • Wildkitten :

      I think it depends on the job and the organization. If you are going to be a preschool teacher at the YMCA don’t wear a suit, but if you are going to be general counsel I don’t think they’ll begrudge you a $250 bag.

  2. Wildkitten :

    An informational interview is like an interview in that you want to make a good impression, but you don’t want to start by asking about open positions. That’s super awkward. You are asking for information – information about how to get a job, information about who else you should talk to, even information about how often jobs open up. If they have an open position you are applying for it is not an informational interview, that is a job interview.

    • I agree with Wildkitten on this. I have been doing a lot of informational interviewing and I think starting off by asking if there is a job open can make it very awkward for the other person. I think it would be better to ask what kind of people the organization looks for. Or even asking the contact, “how did you get where you are now?”. It is an open ended question and gives them room to elaborate. There have been cases where someone might say, “sometimes we hire consultants or have contract positions open”. If that comes up then mention that you would be interested. Alternatively if during the conversation you realize “I really would like to work here”, then bring up the consulting/contracting or interning question. Assuming the conversation is going well, the other person has already warmed up to you. Most people will also know that since this is a career related conversation, it means you are looking for opportunities. They will ask for your resume. Also, ask about other people you can speak to, you then follow up on those leads.

      I know that seeing someone in person is better than a phone conversation. However, don’t rule out using Skype. Very helpful if you want to talk to someone on another continent, which I have done. There are so many tips on having a successful video interview online, look them up.

      • Thanks for this. Conversation is my failing. I’m filing this under “things I need to say”. I actually have to study before I talk to people.

  3. I think Kat’s advice is spot on.

    • I agree with Kat’s advice too (except I’d be careful about asking if there’s a job there if this really is an informational interview). Also, if you do get called back for a real interview it will probably be getting close to fall, and a summer suit might look out of place. I read once that when you’re between seasons you look better if you dress for the upcoming season, and I’ve found that to be true. Of course, if it’s 100 degrees out, you don’t want to be in a wool suit.

  4. In the case of a non-profit (or government role) that serves a low-income community, you can’t go wrong by wearing more mid-range clothes and keeping the jewelry to a minimum.

    That said, I’ve worn a gorgeous three-button black skirt suit with expensive heels to informational interviews and volunteering role interviews (with policy/think tank outfits) and have never had a bad reaction to that. Then again, most of my informational interviews were things I got through friends and family, so I really wanted to make a good impression on behalf of the people who did me a personal favour.

  5. Shopping challenged. :

    I’m looking for a position with a non-profit overseas. Any ideas on how to get informal/informational interviews, how to carry them out, and how to succeed in them? One thing I have in my favor is that I speak the language very well. I’ve done academic writing related to the field, and want to turn to more “activist”, involved work.

work fashion blog press mentions