To his outplacement consultant, the unemployed insurance salesman looked "slovenly." With his old plaid shirt, chino pants and shaggy haircut, he sat slouched in the consultant's office.
A change of image made a world of difference, recalls Lynn Litow, the Linthicum consultant who helped him through a difficult career transition. A whole new outfit (basic gray suit, striped tie and dress shirt) was a decided plus in the transition, as were pointers offered by Ms. Litow on posture, handshakes and other elements of body language.
"During 20 years of inside office work -- most of it on the phone -- the salesman had come to neglect his appearance," Ms. Litow says. "But after getting new clothes and going to a decent hairstylist, he was so excited about the way he looked that he did much better in the interviews."
After two months' worth of job interviews, the out-of-work salesman -- laid off from a desk job with a property and casualty carrier in Baltimore County -- landed the sort of outside sales position he wanted with another carrier in Pennsylvania. What's more, the new job brought with it a 15 percent pay increase.
Conventional wisdom has it that your words and qualifications count most when job hunting. But even the best credentials aren't enough to overcome a poor physical image, career specialists say.
"It's a fact of life that people are attracted to more attractive people -- to people who care for themselves and look well," says Ms. Litow, a partner in the Marlin Group, a human resources consulting firm that provides outplacement services for those, like the salesman, who are laid off their jobs.
"Something like 65 percent of communication takes place through non-verbal channels," adds Susan Deutch, director of job search programs for Careerscope Inc. "So it's pretty important to know what you're doing in that area."
Physical image and first impressions are tied closely together. And the first few moments of a job interview are usually the decisivemoments, points out Ms. Deutch, who conducts seminars on image at Careerscope, the Columbia-based non-profit career counseling center.
"Qualifications aren't necessarily going to give you the edge. But subtle things -- like first impressions -- could really create the extra edge you need," she says.
Of course, there's no substitute for interview preparation: learning about the prospective employer and anticipating questions you'll face. But in the course of preparation, it's also important to think through how you'll present your best image.
"The way you package yourself is important and you need to plan a strategy for this," Ms. Litow says.
Career specialists offer these pointers:
* Adapt the standard office uniform look to your own coloring.
John Molloy, in his widely publicized book "Dress for Success," suggests standard attire -- like a classic navy blue suit -- for those trying to advance professionally. Career specialists agree that traditional clothing is usually the best bet for a job interview. But they say no one outfit is right for everyone.
"The crux of effective dressing is to know how to choose clothing appropriate for your natural coloring, as well as the power look," Ms. Deutch says. Many women and some men have attended seminars to determine their most becoming colors.
These are valuable, yet Ms. Deutch says job applicants should go beyond color selection to think about whether they can carry off highly contrasting outfits. While some have the right coloring to look good in a starkly-contrasting navy suit and white shirt, for instance, others would look washed out with such an outfit. To understand the use of contrast in dress, Ms. Deutch recommends "Color Wonderful," a book by JoAnne Nicholson and Judy Lewis-Crum.
* Avoid black or brown for a job interview, even if they look good on you.
"In general, blacks and browns are too funereal, too depressing for job interviews," Ms. Deutch contends. If you're set on a conservative, dark suit for your interview, consider a gray or navy suit, sheadvises. Another alternative open to women is to soften the look of black or brown clothing with a colorful scarf.
* Choose natural fabrics over synthetics.
"You should select natural fiber blends made of silk, wool or cotton and avoid polyester like the plague," Ms. Deutch says. "Natural fabrics give you a classier, more upscale image in an interview. Could you ever imagine John Sculley, head of Apple Computer, running around in a polyester suit?"
* Focus on your hands and fingernails.
"Professional interviewers are trained to look at hands. You might be wearing a $600 suit and have your hair perfectly coiffed, but if your fingernails are dirty or chewed off, you send a contradictory non-verbal message that the real you is your fingernails," Ms. Deutch says. You don't need a professional manicure, but be sure your nails are cleaned, trimmed and buffed, she says.
* Arrive in advance of your interview to make yourself look good.