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Ask Belle: Stealthy Interview Attire

Dear Belle,

I’m in the process of applying for a new job and I need your help with a problem.  My current office is business casual, most of my co-workers wear jeans and polos, and my interviews are all in professional-dress offices.  How do I dress for the interview without giving away to my co-workers that I’m on the hunt for a new job?

Sincerely, Gwen

I receive different variations of this question frequently, and it is a conundrum.  So I put the query to a group of ladies at my resume session last weekend, and they had some great suggestions.

Timing.  If you need to be dressed in a certain way, but you don’t want to run the risk of being caught, try changing the time of your interview.  Most reasonable hiring managers will understand if you need to come in first thing in the morning, over the lunch hour or last thing in the evening.  They should understand that you have commitments to your current employer, so see if you can move it to a different time.  So see if you can come in late one morning or leave early one day before you play James Bond with your attire.

As one of the women put it, “Do you really want to work in an office where they won’t move the interview a few hours?  Are those the kind of bosses you want to have?”

Tissue Paper.  One person suggested wearing a blazer and blouse with jeans, then packing your pencil skirt/trousers in tissue paper.  The paper will prevent wrinkling, and then you can change in the bathroom on your way out.  If you can’t change in your office, I once ducked into a nearby store and asked a very accommodating sales clerk if I could borrow a dressing room.

Bait and Switch.  Is the blazer the dead giveaway?  Wear it with jeans the day before your interview, and then hang it up in your office or cubicle before you leave for the day.  The next day, wear the pencil skirt and blouse with a pair of flats, and simply grab your jacket on the way out the door like it’s no big deal.

The Buddy System.  One of my friends had an important interview at a K Street firm.  Her boss would have gone ballistic if he knew she was interviewing three-months post-promotion, so she had to get creative.  A good friend worked in a nearby building.  So she gave her friend the suit a few days before, then went to the friend’s office over the lunch hour to change in their restroom, went on her interview and returned the suit.

Tell Your Boss.  There are situations in which telling your boss you’re looking for other work is not possible.  There are some employers that become territorial and insecure about their employees, and they just don’t take that news well.  If you’re in this situation, then wardrobe stealth is required.  But I would wager that the majority of women are not in that situation.

Perhaps, I’ve been lucky, but with the exception of one jackass, I’ve always been able to be honest with my employers about my intentions.  In fact, telling them has helped me find open positions, get the best references and line up interviews.  So don’t just assume that you can’t be forthcoming with your employer, really take the time to determine what her response might be and whether telling her will be beneficial to you in your search.

Any tips to share on how to look like you’re not interviewing when you are?  I recommend not leaving your resume lying around.  You’d be shocked how many resumes and cover letters I’ve found in copy, fax and printing machines.

LEAVE A COMMENT

    33 comments

  1. PSP says:

    GREAT post! As someone who feels like she’s been interviewing for the past 5 years, I’d agree with these tips. I’d also throw Starbucks out there as the recommended place to change/freshen up. There is a starbucks basically everywhere and they usually have large clean restrooms, even in NYC.

    April 2, 2014/Reply
  2. LS says:

    All great suggestions, thank you! I have a related question, although it veers away from fashion. Does anyone have suggestions for stealthy interviewing when you’re trying to relocate? I assume first round interviews will be by phone, but I will have to travel to the potential employer at some point. I can take a Monday or Friday off here and there, but I’m worried my boss will get suspicious if I’m taking long weekends suddenly.

    April 2, 2014/Reply
    • Sara says:

      Great suggestion. Any tips on how to find jobs when you’re trying to relocate would be awesome. I’m also trying to do the same thing.

      April 2, 2014/Reply
    • Lauren says:

      Depending on the distance of the relocation, I think a lot of interviewers are flexible in using Skype for early round, or even all, interviews. I don’t think your boss will be suspicious of long weekends… who doesn’t like a long weekend? Just say you’re trying to take more time for yourself if anybody asks.

      April 2, 2014/Reply
    • AB says:

      When interviewing for positions in another location, you have a lot more flexibility to tell your employer about said interview(s). Unlike with local interviews, your supervisor/boss is less likely to take it personally that you are leaving because you are moving to a different city. You can always play it off as “you like your job, but hate the city you live in”. Or give some reason about how you always wanted to live in XX number of cities before you settle down in a more permanent spot.

      And if you can’t tell your boss/supervisor for fear of backlash, with the weather starting to get nice everywhere, long weekends and trips to visit “friends” are to be expected.

      April 2, 2014/Reply
    • Sarah says:

      I relocated from Denver to DC. The first interview was a phone interview. For the second, I flew out on a Friday. I had to leave the house at three in the morning to catch my flight to make it for a two o’clock interview. It was exhausting but I got the job! Try to schedule interviews for a long weekend and feel out the company in the phone interview to see if it’s worth the trip. I just asked my boss for the day off and it was fine.

      Another point, I disagree with telling your boss you are looking for another job. If you end up changing your mind, they may not see you as a long-term employee worth investing in (via promotions, raises). It can damage your standing in the company.

      April 3, 2014/Reply
      • Mary says:

        On the other hand, your boss may be completely unaware of your unhappiness in your current position and willing to make efforts to keep you. I’m a small business owner, and we recently had a highly valued employee announce he was leaving and taking another position. We knew a little about the reasons he looked for another job, but didn’t know everything. We made an offer for him to stay (with more money, and a much-revised job description that allows him to focus on his strengths), and he took it. We’ve made some very significant changes in the way our company functions because of it, and the results were definitely worth it.

        April 3, 2014/Reply
  3. Allison says:

    When I was interviewing I changed stealthily in an empty parking lot in my car, since my office is a jeans and t-shirt operation. I also tried out Starbucks. Starbucks was a much better option than trying to wriggle into a pencil skirt in your car.

    April 2, 2014/Reply
  4. Sara says:

    This is a great post. In a city like DC where changing in your car or running home before an interview is pretty much impossible, you do have to go to weird measures to get your suit on for an interview. In a city like DC, however, I would sometimes say that I was going to a reception or a briefing or some other kind of networking event. That works best when you are on Capitol Hill.

    April 2, 2014/Reply
  5. Rachel says:

    I had this exact problem recently, except I was interviewing for a different position at the same company/in the same office, which made it even more awkward. I found that communication with the interviewer is key – if you let them know your situation, they should be more accommodating when it comes to scheduling. Also, I used the “Bait and Switch” method above and it worked out perfectly for me.

    April 2, 2014/Reply
  6. Sarah says:

    Great suggestions…I think hotel bathrooms are the best places to change though. They are almost always cleaner and more spacious than a store or Starbucks!

    April 2, 2014/Reply
    • amt says:

      Hotel bathrooms are a savior!

      April 3, 2014/Reply
  7. sw says:

    I did the bait and switch… but the long game. My office was jeans and tshirts, but I love to wear nice sheath dresses and more “conservative office” clothes. So, every once in a while I would dress up. Generally if there was a client in the office, I’d make it a point to look super-professional. Then, it was no big deal when I needed to interview a year and a half later. I just wore a pencil skirt and an oxford,grab my blazer, and go.

    April 2, 2014/Reply
    • Pancakes says:

      I’d also recommend the restrooms of a nice department store. Not sure if you’re interviewing in an urban location, but I’d duck into Neiman Marcus, Saks, or Nordstrom because their restrooms are generally “Women’s Lounges” and have large, clean decently private bathrooms.

      I sometimes find Starbucks bathrooms to be not too clean, and since there it’s a one-toilet private bathroom, if someone’s in there when you need to change, they might take forever and have you pressed for time.

      April 2, 2014/Reply
    • lindsay says:

      Ditto on this one – gradually dress up more often so it’s not so out-of-normal.

      April 2, 2014/Reply
    • Jules says:

      Yes! I knew on the first day of one new, terrible job that I would be looking for something else. So although my office was very casual — all women, and no one wore skirts! — I wore suits and sheath dresses every day.

      And bonus, my coworkers started dressing up, too!

      April 3, 2014/Reply
  8. Sarah says:

    My former job was a business casual/business office but the non-lobbyist women in the office, like myself, never wore full suits. So when I started interviewing elsewhere I began wearing full suits more often in general so no one would notice that I was dressed up only on days I had “doctor’s appointments.”

    April 2, 2014/Reply
  9. Virginia says:

    I did this several times when I was looking for work. I always scheduled my interviews for a morning slot (since it was easier to come in a little bit late than making an excuse to leave a little early or right on time). I found that hotel lobbies (I’m in NYC) are the best places to change clothes. There’s ALWAYS a bathroom in the lobby of a hotel and if you walk in like you’ve been staying there for days, you can usually go straight to the bathroom and change. If not, let the concierge know what your deal is and they’re usually pretty accommodating.

    A couple of times I had to do the Starbucks bathroom routine, but it was always really gross in there.

    April 2, 2014/Reply
  10. Anna says:

    My old chief saw me with my new employer after my second interview and went BALLISTIC. I had told my previous Member cuz I knew he’d be supportive, but had seen how the chief treated other people she knew were looking and didn’t want to risk it if I didn’t get the job. Luckily, I had just been offered the job, so there was not a whole lot she could do. Totally get not being able to talk to your employer, though it certainly goes a long way toward leaving on good terms.

    April 2, 2014/Reply
  11. Anon says:

    Don’t put in your LinkedIn profile that you are looking for a change. It might sound obvious, but people still do it. And people from your current employer – whether HR , boss or “competitors” do look at these things.

    April 2, 2014/Reply
    • LizNYC says:

      Along with the LinkedIn profile, when people start looking, they start updating their profiles all at once. When I knew I’d be leaving OldJob, I gradually started to update my profile months out (since I knew my search would be a long one), so that even if anyone at my office noticed my LinkedIn was suddenly “fuller,” no one would think it was strange.

      April 4, 2014/Reply
  12. Anna Belle says:

    I love the idea of the bait and switch – too clever! It’s hard in my field to cover up interviews because they are normally site visits that can take 2-3 days, including cross-country travel. But we’re in a situation to drop a few hints to our boss; many people interview simply to renegotiate their contract (most actually can’t renegotiate without a completing offer. It’s messed up.)

    April 2, 2014/Reply
  13. J says:

    These are great tips. I second the commenter recommending hotel lobby bathrooms for the bait-and-switch. But, if anyone asked, i’d probably just lie and tell people I was going out to a nice dinner or on a date after work.

    April 2, 2014/Reply
  14. Christy says:

    I was in the same boat a few months ago. The great thing about DC? There are hotels EVERYWHERE and they all have restrooms on the lobby…usually very large, luxurious restrooms that have outlets where you can plug in a hair straightener if need be! I packed my interview clothes in a gym bag, ducked out for a long lunch and changed in a hotel.

    April 2, 2014/Reply
  15. Stephanie says:

    Funny story– when I was at my last job and interviewing for my current job, I went for a screening interview down the street at a well known attorney headhunter firm. I came back to my office, and walked over to the elevator bank. Which, fortunately, was kind of a mirrored surface, and that allowed me to notice that I still had a GIANT visitor sticker on my jacket with the name of the well known headhunter in GIANT letters. I very nearly walked back into work with it on. It’s good I didn’t because it took like 3 months for the new job offer to happen.

    April 2, 2014/Reply
  16. Liz says:

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned simply calling out sick on a day you have an interview. Addresses the wardrobe issue plus calls less attention to being out of the office randomly for a couple of hours during the day.

    April 2, 2014/Reply
    • Anna says:

      This would only work if this is a random opportunity that’s come your way. If you’re actively searching, that could mean several interviews, and then, it would look shady.

      April 3, 2014/Reply
  17. Jeanie says:

    For any situation with somewhat competing dress codes, I’ve always been a big fan of good dresses. A good dress (as far as I’m concerned) can look casual with a jean jacket or cardigan, hair down, and some good flats, but looks conservative with a blazer, swept back hair, and good heels. I figured this out working in fundraising when I wanted to be comfortable in the office and commuting (in NYC through all seasons of weather) and still had to look presentable for meetings and/or fundraisers.

    ps – Good luck with interviews!

    April 2, 2014/Reply
  18. Stealth says:

    If your current job let’s you work from home, I would do that on the day of the interview. That way, you can change in peace and no one would ever be the wiser 😉

    April 3, 2014/Reply
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  20. Mira says:

    I like dressing up even in a casual environment so I do the long game: blazer over a button down and jeans, dresses, trousers, etc. so if I have an interview, I can duck out without raising suspicion. Also, I once had to change from a suit back into jeans on the highway. A friend was driving but never again.

    April 4, 2014/Reply
  21. MissDisplaced says:

    I always try to schedule interviews first thing in the morning, so you can dress for the interviews. But I’ve had to change in my car before going into work! LOL! Quite a feat!

    April 5, 2014/Reply
  22. Neki says:

    I work from home one day a week and sometimes schedule doctors appointments for those days or other days, which allows me to change my day that week. So when I occasionally have interviews, I just say it’s a doctor’s appointment and switch my work from home day if I can’t schedule the interview for my normal day.

    April 13, 2014/Reply