According to the dictionary, the “simple” definition of professionalism is having the “skill, good judgment, and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well.” What does “professional” look like?
You may interview at a workplace with four different generations of people working side-by-side. Many people in hiring roles grew up in a time when (for men) suits were dark, shirts were white, and hair was short. The rules were clear for women too: a suit meant a matching skirt and jacket, hose was mandatory, and open-toed shoes were saved for the weekends. A lot has changed since those days, which means that when preparing for an interview, you’re faced with lots of choices; but, you are smart to see that the shadows of the old rules may still affect how you are perceived.
The gap between what different generations view as professional isn’t just about clothing. In some surveys, almost half of respondents say that those entering the work force don’t meet benchmarks of appearance, punctuality, and communication skills expected of professionals. How does a savvy job-seeker navigate the generation gap in order to get an offer?
You control how you present yourself. It makes sense to eliminate distractions—take away the things that divert attention from what you can offer an employer. Recognizing superficial things can be negatively perceived because of the generation gap gives you an advantage over other applicants.
You can eliminate distractions by presenting a conservative appearance. For men, this might mean a clean shave during that “No Shave November” interview and considering how to style your hair on interview day. For women, it means wearing choosing closed toed shoes and recognizing that not everyone views lingerie straps as accessories. For all, it means covering up tattoos during interviews; no where is the generation gap as wide as when it comes to whether “tattoo” and “professional” belong in the same sentence.
A frequent comeback is, “why would I want to work somewhere so [conservative/stuffy/rigid]?” You may not, but recognize that appearance can be a sort of screening test. A hiring manager recently told me about a candidate he nixed after she dressed casually (with tattoos showing) for her first interview. He explained that her appearance would have been completely acceptable in the office on an ordinary work day, but that since his firm had some conservative clients, he preferred interview candidates who erred on the “better safe than sorry” side. He thought it showed better judgment, which was a quality he understandably appreciated in a prospective hire.
It’s not about you. It’s about what you can do.
Think ahead of time about your response to that awkward, “tell me about yourself” interview question. Your interviewer may have bought into the stereotype that you are from the “I’m special” generation where everyone gets a trophy. Turn the question around to show that you understand that an interview isn’t just about how your background and your story. Yes, you have to articulate your strengths, but your story should directly relate to what you can offer an employer. Think of your experiences, they strengths you developed from them, and be prepared to tell a story that shows how you will be an asset to their team.
Get the offer before you decide a workplace isn’t a good fit.
Remember your goal. Every interview is about selling yourself–selling yourself effectively means knowing your audience. It might be fair to say that the older generation needs to revise its expectations and stop defining professionalism through an “outdated lens” and many of your peers use this reasoning to act as if an older generation’s concerns cannot impact them. Alternatively, you can tailor your presentation to the people who have the power to offer you that job.
Work places have different cultures, vibes, and dress codes. You can certainly decide that you don’t want to work for a buttoned-up firm, but you might want to give yourself options. You can muse about “fit” after you get that offer. After all, you can’t say no to a job offer that you don’t receive.
These tips aren’t about what is “right” or what is appropriate–this advice is intended to give you power to navigate the generation gap and get the offers you want. Choose to be the savvy candidate who seeks to close the generation gap during the interview process. Good luck out there!
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Other helpful interview tips:
- How to Ace Your Law Firm Interview
- Job Hunting 101 What Makes You Unique
- Behave Like a Professional in the Legal Workplace (podcast)
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