So a student walks into a job interview with a mid-size accounting firm in Manhattan. His uncle arranged the interview and the student had not visited with Career Services. Let’s look at his professional persona – the image he projects to those in the world of work. Our young man is dressed in a suit with a white shirt and tie, black shoes and is carrying a leather portfolio with his resume tucked inside. Let’s zoom in a little more closely at the image he projects to the interviewer.
His suit is dark in color which is good, but a closer look will see that the cuffs are a bit worn and there is a slight stain on the collar. His tie almost matches his suit, but not quite; it looks like he was in a rush and did not pay attention or he did not know how to match. His shirt is white which is good, but the cuffs are frayed and the fabric is pilled in the front and his top button is unbuttoned. His shoes are black, but, you guessed it, scuffed. He is carrying a leather portfolio which again is good, but, you guessed it again, the edges are frayed. So, here is a young job candidate who is eager to get the position, but whose appearance screams, “I’m not interested enough in this position to be concerned about my professional persona. Furthermore, on my interview I’m supposed to present my best self, when I get the position and you send me out to meet a client, in all likelihood I’ll be even less careful about how I present myself.” Did he get a second interview? No! He learned quickly and emphatically that, “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression!”
Let’s look more closely at this concept called “professional persona.” It is comprised of a number of facets, including clothes, personal grooming, accessories, vocabulary, humor, posture, facial expression, attitude, body language, nervous actions and handshake. It would be instructive to examine each aspect. Let’s start with the most obvious and move to those subtle aspects that a candidate might not even consider.
Clothes – Suit and Tie Since candidates should be dressing their best for the interview, your clothes speak volumes to an interviewer. A dark, well-pressed, clean suit for men and women says, “I’m concerned about how I appear to you and to those I will come in contact with in the position you have available. You can be sure I will represent my employer well.” An astute interviewer will pick up immediately if your suit is not well-made; it is a wise investment to buy a really good suit which will look better and last longer. The experts tell us that spending $600 for a suit at an upscale department store is a wise investment. Do not forget to have your suit professionally tailored; a great suit which does not fit properly will not help you.
You need to make sure that your tie complements your suit. If you are not good at color matching, ask some who is, like the salesman, your spouse or a fashion-savvy friend. Go with the current styles.
If you wear a yarmulke, make sure it looks fresh. Men tend to wear one every day and after a while it looks worn and not clean. As an aside, don’t go to the interview without one, and then show up the first day wearing a yarmulke. No one likes to be fooled!
Clothes – Shirt You cannot go wrong with a clean, lightly starched, wrinkle-free, long-sleeve white shirt with no signs of wear. It should fit well and be tucked neatly into your pants. This is no time for shirttails to be sticking out. Make sure your belt is not worn.
Personal Grooming This element includes a neat haircut, a clean, fresh smelling body, clean, well-trimmed fingernails, pleasant breath, and good dental hygiene. If you have a beard, it should be neat. Women should follow the guideline that “less is better” with respect to jewelry, make-up and perfume.
Accessories – Portfolio and Pen A professional-looking leather portfolio will enhance your professional image. A vinyl or plastic portfolio will detract from your image. Invest in a good pen; pulling out a plastic Bic pen (even though it works well), cannot compare to an image-enhancing Cross or Waterbury pen. Also, when you place your resume copies in your portfolio, make sure they remain wrinkle-free. Remember, every detail counts. As someone once said, “The devil is in the details.”
Speaking Voice and Vocabulary Enunciate your words distinctly. Use a professional vocabulary; stay away from slang expressions which present you as too casual or unprofessional. There are many books that can assist you in improving your word choices. Be wary not to speak over the head of the interviewer.
Do not use any yeshivish, Yiddish or Hebrew terms, especially in a professional firm, even if the interviewer is frum.
Humor The safest route is to steer clear of humor, certainly nothing risqué, or diversity-offensive; steer clear of politics, religion and sports because you do not know where the interviewer’s preferences lie.
Posture Your mother probably told you to stand up straight. This is sage advice! Slouching will detract significantly from your image. We have had one employer reject a student because they slouched. The message that slouching sends is, “I don’t have a lot of a self confidence.” When sitting, sit up straight and lean slightly forward which creates the impression of interest in what the interviewer is saying.
Facial Expression “SMILE!!” Studies show that people who smile genuinely are much more likeable than those who frown or are dead-pan. Just like you would not want to spend time with someone you do not like, interviewers have the same mind set. Make good eye contact, but do not stare. Ask others to evaluate your eye contact, if it needs work, then practice. It is a learned skill.
Attitude Just like you can tell almost immediately if someone has a negative, arrogant or entitlement attitude, so can the interviewer. It is a turn-off. “Neither arrogant or a beggar be!” Do not appear to be desperate for a job. Ask your friends, family or Career Services professional how you come across. If you project an image of not being friendly, likeable, or easy to be with, there are ways to modify your attitude. NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) has techniques that work very well; Google “NLP techniques” for free information.
Body Language This aspect of your professional persona also speaks volumes. Crossed-arms say, “I’m not open to you; I’m defensive.” Avoiding eye contact can be interpreted as lacking confidence or hiding something. Hand shaking also can have many different meanings. There are many good books on this subject. Try to catch yourself and observe your default body language. Ask someone to provide feedback as to what your body is communicating.
Nervous Actions When most people get nervous, and an interview can be nerve-wracking, they do something to shed their nervous energy. Examples are finger-tapping, hair twirling, beard stroking, playing with a pen by clicking or twirling it on the back of the hand (I’m in awe of the dexterity that this type of twirling takes), cracking knuckles, squirming, rocking back and forth. You get the idea. All of these behaviors are distracting to the interviewer. Imagine if you were the manager sending a “twirler” or a “squirmer” out to a client.
Handshake Orthodox Jews need to decide before their interview what action they will take if greeted by an interviewer of the opposite gender whether or not to shake hands. Career Services’ advice is to have the student ask their rabbinic authority how to respond. We suggest that you ask someone who is familiar with the business world. No one should be told to carry a cup of coffee in your right hand and, therefore, indicate that you cannot shake hands. There are two problems with this approach; one, you never take a cup of coffee into an interview, and two, you can always switch the cup to your left hand. Carrying two cups of coffee is not an option!
In summary, you never get a second chance to make a first impression, so pay attention to how you present yourself. It is not always easy to see ourselves, so make it a point to ask people who are in the same field that you are looking to enter. Don’t make the mistake of knowing that people who work for a particular employer dress very casually and think you can go to the interview dressed the same way. They already work there; you don’t. Put your consciousness into the details and chase the devil away. Attention to your professional persona will pay off in many ways. Good luck!
We welcome your feedback. Please email your career-related inquiries and/or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org. Touro College’s Career Services assists Touro students and alumni in all aspects of their career search. Contributing to this feature are S. Ronald Ansel, MBA, CPC, Director of Career Services, Chaim Shapiro, M.Ed, and Sarri Singer, Assistant Directors.
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