what to wear to a nonprofit interview

My new pet peeve is becoming people who think that because they’re interviewing at a nonprofit, they can dress down for the interview. I’ve seen too many candidates lately in business casual, which I’m pretty sure they’d never wear for an interview at, say, a bank.

Why are people doing this? Do they think other nonprofit standards are going to be lower too, like performance accountability? They’re not. (Or at least they shouldn’t be; if anything, they should be higher, given the importance of the work of many nonprofits.)

This is my PSA for the day: If you are interviewing at a nonprofit, you still need to wear a suit.

{ 24 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    If I showed up for an interview wearing a suit, I would look out of place, out of touch, and likely would not get hired. Why? I work in technology.

    It doesn’t matter what kind of company I apply for, non-profit or for-profit, I will not show up in a suit. That is particularly true when most jobs working in technology only require jeans and t-shirts. For them, business casual is the extent that people dress up. Dressing up any more than that paints you as a business person and NOT a serious technical worker.

    In tech, if someone came to an interview wearing a suit, you would laugh at them after they left and promptly throw their resume in the trash.

  2. almostgotit*

    Afraid I disagree with you, anonymous. The tech people I work with often wear jeans… but when they need to meet with an important client, in a business atmosphere, they clean up and put on a suit like everyone else.

    When I’ve interviewed with tech people, I wore a suit. And I also got hired.

    My friends and relatives who work for (or have interviewed with) Microsoft, Google, and Amazon? Mabybe not a suit, but a shirt and tie at least. No one would laugh at a well-cut, up-to-date suit. Maybe the prob is that some folks unaccustomed to wearing suits try wearing something their parents bought them in the ’70s?

    It’s rarely a sin to OVER-dress in any case, so I’d much rather err in that way — and have, upon occasion. Sometimes to surprisingly good effect, I should add!

  3. Rachel - I Hate HR*

    My last candidate showed up in flip flops and capris. I’m not sure if it’s a problem in for-profit as well but it’s certainly a problem in non-profit.

  4. Anonymous*

    Interesting. Flip-flops and capris is going too far, definitely. And I’m sure what you write here is generally true… but there are exceptions. I work for a non-profit and we were just discussing attire at the office the other day, and a hiring manager said, “To tell the truth if someone comes too dressed up for an interview with me, it’s a strike. If they prove themselves throughout the interview I’ll still hire them, but I really don’t like it if they walk in wearing a suit.”

    Our day-to-day office attire consists of flip-flops, jeans, and cargo shorts. And yes we dress nicer if we have to meet with government officials, but still not suits.

    I guess we’re the exception. Part of our non-profit’s (unofficial, not in these words) mission is to promote authenticity and being comfortable with oneself regardless of externals, like dress.

  5. Anonymous*

    I’ve had multiple in-person interviews at Microsoft. And, in fact, I did land a job there for a technical position. If you walk in wearing a suit for a technical position, that is counted against you, especially when the people interviewing you are wearing shorts and have blue hair.

    Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and most tech companies, especially on the west coast, are all shops that wear jeans and t-shirts. You come in wearing a suit and you’ll look out-of-touch.

    The best advice is to find out ahead of time what the dress code is and attempt to match it.

  6. Evil HR Lady*

    I used to work for a truck parts wholesaler–in the warehouse. You should have seen the outfits people wore to interviews. I don’t think it was necessary to wear a suit for such an interview, but if you showed up in a wife-beater or daisy dukes you weren’t getting the job.

    I still shudder when I think of it.

  7. majigail*

    I run a nonprofit and this is a pet peeve of mine too. These days, I’m begging for at least business casual out of people! One interviewee came this summer in a tee shirt and stretchy shorts! We also had someone arrive 45 minutes late for a volunteer interview, then ask about being considered for a paid position… I think not…

  8. Anonymous*

    I work for a temp agency and it amazes me how people come dressed for their interviews, especially for industrial positions. Some of the women look like they’re heading out clubbing, and some of the guys look like thugs. And the kicker is when they have their whole family in tow. I want to scream when this happens – bringing baby and baby-mama is NOT going to get you a job!

  9. Kelly O*

    I would disagree that wearing at the very least a dress shirt and tie is too much for a tech interview. Quite frankly I’m curious how being a serious business person would automatically make you a less serious technical worker. I’m certain there are a good number of technical managers who recognize the importance of business savvy “even” in a mainly technical environment.

    Honestly I would think an interviewee could at least wear a tie, or research the company and discover more about the corporate culture. If it’s a casual nonprofit you certainly don’t have to wear a formal suit and hose, but it might be nice to wear dressy separates. It’s mainly out of respect for the interviewer and the company you’re trying to impress.

    I think what gets lost sometimes is the fact you are making your first face-to-face impression on someone for whom you would like to work. Do you want to be remembered as the prepared candidate who was perhaps a bit overdressed but polished, or the prepared but sloppy candidate? I would rather be remembered for erring on the side of caution.

  10. Anonymous*

    I’d like to remind everyone that sometimes people are interviewing while they’re gainfully employed. I work in technology and if I wore a suit (or even just a tie), my boss would ask me point blank, where I was interviewing. There’s no excuse for casual attire during an interview, but if someone is dressed well (neat, pressed, etc), I don’t count it against them if they’re not in a suit. In fact, I am someone who hates suits, and have never worn a suit in my life. Why? I prefer dress slacks and a dry cleaned shirt. I want to work for a company that has a similar culture.

  11. Anonymous*

    I am a tech support manager and have brightly colored hair. If someone showed up to an interview in anything other than a “nice outfit” (a tie DOES help) I wouldn’t take them seriously. A suit is a nice touch, though not necessary.

  12. Anonymous*

    We have business casual at my office [which means dress shirt, dress pants, and dress shoes for men, no ties] but we still expect interviewees to wear suits [as you can tell, I’m speaking from a male perspective–but yes, we don’t want interviewees to wear business casual.] The joke we always make on interview days is “This will probably be the only time you ever have to wear a suit at this office.”

    We have clients who have different requests for how we dress when we go to their sites–some of these clients are the tech companies people mentioned, but business casual is the bare minimum dress code standard.
    However, people in our office never wear ties/suits, etc. This includes upper level executive people. I’ve seen some men wear sports coats, but that was as far as it went, and that was unusual.

    I could never imagine not at least wearing a tie to an interview, if not a suit. I’m in a fairly conservative field, though. It’s a two-way street, also…when we’re on campus at recruiting events, we always wear suits and ties–we feel like it’s more respectful to the students, many of whom are wearing business attire for the first time.

  13. class factotum*

    “Part of our non-profit’s (unofficial, not in these words) mission is to promote authenticity and being comfortable with oneself regardless of externals, like dress.”

    No disrespect, but isn’t it authentic that people DO judge based on appearances? And shouldn’t the hiring manager be happy that a candidate is comfortable in his externals if those externals are a suit rather than counting it against him?

  14. Ask a Manager*

    When I made this post, I thought to myself: “No one but me is going to care about this topic.” Clearly I know nothing.

    Reading all the interesting comments people have left, I think the message here is probably to know the answer to this for the specific company when you’re interviewing … which doesn’t mean guess, it means know for sure (and verify your assumptions) … and if you don’t know for sure, or your can’t verify your assumptions with someone who does know for sure, err on the side of caution and wear a suit.

  15. HR Maven*

    I work for a college and I see attire that runs the gamut. I have had IT director level candidates show up in suits, along with all other candidates.

    I have also had candidates show up in bizarre attire. And a previous comment referenced current job (great point) but many candidates will change on the way to the interview – or at least put on a tie.

    Some days it feels like the wild west. :)

  16. Anonymous*

    AAM, could it be your non profits cause? I know if I interviewed at say an art gallery I’d dress a lot different than say a homeless shelter. (nothing against homeless shelters)

  17. Valerie*

    Yes, yes and yes!

    I find that sometimes people confuse ‘what to wear at an interview’ with ‘what to wear at a job’ and they are NOT the same thing. First impressions and all that.

    I am staunchly anti-denim when it comes to interviews. Had a client argue with me for 20 minutes that he could wear jeans to an interview because he could wear them on the job. (Safety inspector for a construction company, if you’re interested.) I’m still not sure who won that argument.

  18. Brian*

    Anyone see anything wrong with asking what the dress code is for the company you are interviewing with and then dressing one step up? That has been my approach the last couple times I’ve interviewed. I’m a techie and I wouldn’t go to an interview in anything less than business casual. I’ve changed clothes in the car before…

  19. jaded hr rep*

    Amen! I worked at an educational publishing co. a few years ago, and while not non-profit, we attracted a lot of candidates who fit the “non-profit” mold. I also had one interviewee come in with bicycle pants/capris on?? Needless to say, she didn’t get the job.

  20. Just another HR lady...*

    I work for an engineering/technology company and our tech bunch are fairly casual dressers. The management team, anyone not on the tech side of things, and anyone who has to meet with clients (including techies) follow a business casual rule. As for what I expect during an interview for a technology role, neat and no jeans are fine with me, however I do always appreciate it when a candidate asks me what the appropriate dress would be for an interview.

  21. Anonymous*

    If you’re interviewing at Msft, Google, or Apple, don’t wear a suit, but you also need to ditch the business casual dorkware. Better off wearing one of those winter caps with strings hanging by the earlobes, even if its warm out. Also make sure you bring up your kitesurfing hobby, and be sure to wrap up the interview by asking about bringing your dog to work. Also, if you’ve ever worked in the alternative energy industry, they’ll hire you regardless of what you wear.


  22. Miss Bee*

    I agree that there is a difference between what to wear on an interview and what to wear on the job after you get it.

    I feel like most interviews by nature require you to present yourself professionally and therefore you would wear business casual attire up to a full business suit. After you have the job, you then dress to match how your colleagues dress.

    Nurses wear scrubs on the job but I am sure they would not show up in scrubs for their interview because "that is how everyone dresses on the job". Professors can wear whatever they want, I've had professors who wear shorts and t-shirts to class, however in interviewing for the job I am certain they did not wear that.

    I'd rather look too put together than not. 9/10 times overdressing will not hurt you, whereas under dressing 9/10 times perhaps will.

  23. OeDi*

    This might be an old but still relevant article. Last year I applied to three non-profit organizations and I went with a business suit( blazer, bottom-down shirt and a skirt) with conservative heels. I did not bother wearing tights because over here in the tropics is a little bit too much to handle. Regardless if it is a non-profit or not is still an organization that demands the proper etiquette for those interviews. I am currently searching for jobs and for my interviews all I am going to wear is what a wore for my previous interviews in the non-profit sector regardless if the company in the private sector or not. You can never go wrong with wearing a suit if you feel is too much you can arrive earlier than program and change a bit.

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