There are four ways, and only four ways, in which we have contact with the world. We are evaluated and classified by these four contacts: what we do, how we look, what we say, and how we say it. -- Dale Carnegie
It's a fact of life that the way you present yourself to others may not make your career, but can certainly break it. Landing a good job is difficult under the best of circumstances, and for each job opening there will be only one winner. It's of critical importance, then, that you control every variable that you possibly can. One of those, of course, is your choice of business attire.
For now I'll focus on appropriate business attire for women. I'd love to hear from men who have been in the pharmaceutical industry, particularly sales managers, regarding attire for men.
You must wear a very well-cut, expensive looking business suit. Expensive looking does not have to be expensive, but it won't be cheap either. I think pants suits look more current and just as professional, but some people still insist it must be a skirt suit. With a skirt, you run an exposure risk if you're sitting out in the open for the interview rather than at a table. Regardless, hosiery is essential. This is not negotiable. If you're wearing a skirt, you MUST wear pantyhose regardless of whether they're currently stylish or not. If you're wearing pants, you can wear trouser socks that match your pants and shoes. For the suit, go with something dark -- black or navy are my top choices. Gray usually isn't a good choice because the color will wash you out. You'll need an immaculate top underneath. This means that the fabric doesn't look worn, buttons do not gap, and your top is perfectly cleaned and pressed. My personal preference is a very nice knit top in a modest v-neck or turtleneck, depending on weather. You don't want anything casual or bulky, but rather a sleek, sweatery-type of top that contrasts with the suit. Either a flat knit or a fine rib knit works well. If the color of the top is light, make sure your bra is a nude color. White bras often show through your top. Everything has to fit impeccably and be tailored to fit if necessary. Your suit should be freshly dry-cleaned and perfectly pressed for every interview. Don't wear linen -- you'll look like you slept in your clothes. A dark shoe with a moderate heel, kind of a loafer/pump hybrid, works well with a pants suit and, depending on the cut of the shoe, sometimes with skirt suits as well. With pants, an ordinary pump can sometimes look a bit dated. Think stylish yet conservative -- no open toes or open backs (not negotiable), no stiletto heels, and nothing too high.
For second interviews and beyond, you could consider wearing a jacket that contrasts with your pants, but only if the ensemble looks expensive and current. This works best if your pants and top are the same color and only the jacket contrasts -- for example, black pants, top, and shoes with a contrasting jacket. In order to work for interviews, this look has to be very simple and uncluttered. A matching jacket and pants suit is safer, but the contrasting jacket can work if you're careful with it.
Go with minimal, discreet jewelry. The only exception is an ostentatious wedding/engagement ring, which is perfectly acceptable. If you have wedding/engagement rings on, don't wear any others. If you don't, you can wear ONE tasteful ring, as long as it's not on your thumb (preferably, limit rings to your ring fingers only). No dangly earrings. Studs or very small hoops (the kind that just barely clear your earlobe) are best. Discreet, tasteful bracelets are fine as long as they're silent and don't clang on the table every time you move. Although a watch is not necessary, it's a nice touch and is traditional. This should not need to be said, but I'll do it anyway -- no ankle bracelets, no facial jewelry, and only one pair of earrings. Now is not the time to express yourself -- it's more important that you express the image of the company with which you're interviewing. And in the pharmaceutical industry, that means conservative and elegant.
Makeup should be natural-looking and professional. You want it to enhance your looks without being noticeable. Check out your foundation in natural light so it doesn't look heavy. Go for subtle eyeshadow and/or eyeliner. Nothing glittery, shiny, heavy, or shimmery. Wear lipstick or subtle lip gloss (nothing too shiny, glassy, or noticeable) in a subtle color. If you wear a dark or bright lipstick it will wear off unevenly during the interview as you talk and will leave very noticeable marks on your coffee cup or water glass. And go easy on the fake tanner.
Hair should be neat and professional yet current. If it's long, it shouldn't be hanging straight and close to the face. This isn't MTV. Long hair looks good pulled back in a professional-looking ponytail (no scrunchies) or put up somehow as long as it's not elaborate or shellacked into place. Please, no tendrils hanging around, and no clippy things to put the hair up. Short or shoulder-length hair should be neat, current but not overly trendy. Color and highlights should look natural -- no chunky, stripe-y highlights or dark underneath/light on top.
Nails should be short-ish, with a clear or subtle polish. Steer clear of noticeable colors. If you're wearing a distinct color you will somehow manage to chip a nail right before you get to your interview. As a side note, when you're handling your resume, brag book contents, or anything else that will be seen by interviewers, be VERY careful about getting nail polish marks on them. You lose major points for class if there are little red streaks on the papers where your polish rubbed off your nails.
Perfume really shouldn't be worn for interviews. You just don't know if your interviewer or someone in their office might be allergic. Play it safe.
FOR WORKING IN THE FIELD
There's really no difference between interview attire and the ideal attire for work in the field. You can, however, be a bit less exacting in the degree of formality you strive for. I've frequently worn the contrasting jacket/pants ensemble in the field without giving it a second thought, whereas for an interview I'd be debating whether it was too casual.
Your employer will most likely specify the dress code. It will often be business casual, but don't assume that. Even if they say it's business casual, bring a couple of suits just in case. You never know. No jeans, no excess skin showing. No sleeveless, ever. Armpits are on the list of body parts you don't show to colleagues. Nice pants, like your suit pants. Maybe -- MAYBE -- cropped pants would be ok as long as they're very nice and the rest of the outfit is classy and conservative. Pants should be cut high enough at the waist that there's absolutely no risk of flashing butt cleavage or lingerie. No one wants to know you THAT well. A lot of us are partial to twin sets for business casual. The bonus is that you can wear the shell part under a suit another time. (Caveat -- make sure to launder or dry clean both pieces at the same time, every time, even if you only wore one of them. Otherwise you'll end up with matching pieces that no longer match.) The same jewelry rules apply for business casual as for business, but you might be able to get away with jewelry that's ever so slightly more fun. You MIGHT be able to get away with open toed or open back shoes, but it's smarter to err on the side of conservatism. The only people who get talked about because of their clothes are the ones who aren't conservative enough.
FOR MEETINGS AND OTHER 'BUSINESS CASUAL' EVENTS
Again, your employer will most likely specify the dress code. In addition to 'business casual', you may also see oddball descriptions like 'country club casual' or some such nonsense. Same thing.
FOR 'BUSINESS CASUAL' DINNERS AT DISTRICT, REGIONAL, OR NATIONAL MEETINGS
You can jazz up your business casual if you want with jewelry that is ever so slightly more fun. Generally, even after hours when you go out to dinner as a team or have some sort of dinner event, jeans are not appropriate. Your company's meeting planners might plan some kind of hokey 'hoedown' barbecue for dinner, in which case jeans are ok and they will tell you so. (Caveat -- see above discussion of butt cleavage.)
FOR AN AWARDS BANQUET OR SIMILAR EVENT
They'll tell you the dress code. Stick with, at most, a slightly more festive version of your usual business attire, but nothing that screams 'New Year's Eve'. If they say the attire is 'business dressy', what they mean is no cocktail dresses. No spaghetti straps. You will see girls (notice I didn't say women) who are wearing cocktail dresses with stilettos. Those girls get talked about.
Regardless of whether it's interview, business, business casual, business dressy, or some other variation, the overall rules are as follows:
- Look like you don't need the money. You want to look expensive, but not in a high-priced hooker kind of way. Elegant, expensive, classy.
- When in doubt, err on the side of conservatism.
- Carry an expensive (or expensive-looking) purse. Go fashionable but not trendy. I prefer a bag that I carry by its handles rather than wear over my shoulder because it doesn't make my jacket hang funny.
- Use matching luggage, not odds and ends. It doesn't have to be status luggage, although that's always a plus.
- Never, ever cheap out on the shoes. Ever. EV-ER.
- Fashionable, but not trendy.
- Not sexy. No cleavage (front or back), no belly, no armpits. Never sleeveless. Ever. Unless you have something over it with sleeves.