June 14, 2012
What (not) to wear to a veterinary interview
Opinions vary about almost everything except flip-flops
By: Phyllis DeGioia
For The VIN News Service
What to wear — or more importantly, what not to wear — for a job interview in a veterinary setting is a hotly debated subject. More so than many other professions, advice about what is best or even appropriate falls across a broad scale.
The reason is this: Unless the interview is clearly defined in advance as a working interview, candidates don’t know if they’ll remain in an office or go into an exam room. Expressing anal sacs or taking urine from a cat could ruin nice clothes. On the other hand, arriving dressed to be running errands is unlikely to create the best first impression.
The clothing conundrum is a frequent topic of discussion on message boards of the Veterinary Information Network (VIN) and Veterinary Support Personnel Network (VSPN), online communities for the profession. Many in those communities advocate dressing in "business casual"; the trouble is, the phrase means something different to everyone.
In one recent VIN message board discussion, veterinarians define business casual clothing as khakis and polo shirts; khakis and a button-down shirt; and dress slacks, a button-down shirt or sweater with or without a blazer. Some people indicate that polo shirts and khakis are fine but most say they are too casual for a job interview. For women, skirts usually are thought of as too much, although some think they are appropriate. Shoes should be closed-toed and in good shape.
Suits are another point of contention. Some veterinarians advocate them for a more professional look while others argue that those wearing suits are overdressed. Dr. David Landers of Dallas comes down on the "no suits" side. He also advocates against wearing heels.
“I think nice slacks and a nice blouse (don't wear a polo) and flats are the best choice," Landers wrote in a VIN discussion. "Have your lab coat and stethoscope in your car as I'm likely to ask you to see a patient with me. If you are a guy, nice slacks and button up shirt with a tie, no suit and no coat. But also don't be the guy that showed up in flip-flops, shorts and a Hawaiian shirt half buttoned (yes, this was a doctor). I don't wear a tie to work, and I don't expect someone to wear long sleeves or a nice blouse every day, but do somewhat expect it for an interview.”
What an applicant wears may matter even when dropping off a resume. It does to Dr. Bree Montana, whose clinic is on the north side of Lake Tahoe in California. Montana has a well-developed sense of what she likes in applicants' appearances, and has been horrified to see people stop by dressed in boating or skiing gear, resumes in hand, hoping for an on-the-spot interview. She has seen more than one applicant show up in flip-flops, short shorts and tank tops.
“I think because we're in a resort area they think they can dress like they're in a resort," Montana said. "Their hubris is amazing. They don't seem to realize it's a professional career."
Her advice: "Send a letter ahead of time, and show up looking like a doctor.”
During her last round of interviews to hire a part-time associate, Montana saw some doctors arrive late. One showed up late carrying a giant Big Gulp, dressed in a way that reminded Montana of the Carol Burnett character who cleans house.
“Her interview clothes were an awful sweater, ill-fitting pants and unflattering top,” Montana said.
Because the candidate had a great personality and sense of humor and Montana could relate to her, Montana hired her despite her appearance.
Unfortunately, the woman’s attire never improved. Montana chose to not hire her for permanent full-time work partially because she couldn't pull her appearance together.
“She always looked like she was going to the laundromat and was wearing that last bit of clothing you have that's clean,” Montana said. “I tried positive reinforcement for clean hair and clothes that matched, but it didn't help. She'd come to work in a knitted cap, the kind that mats your hair, and this hideous sweater she wore to the interview.”
She worked days Montana didn't, and Montana would come in to remind her she couldn't wear that sweater in the exam room.
Montana then instituted uniforms. Employees are now required to wear nice black scrubs.
“Some people think it's okay not to wash their hair, or show up wearing scrubs with the Hill's logo,” Montana said. “Don't wear those crappy scrubs you stole from school. It would be funny if it weren't true.”
For women, Montana has specific advice: Wear a top that is neither clingy nor gaping. She doesn't want to see lingerie or cleavage. A blouse, shirt or sweater is fine, she says, just "make sure none of your 'hot stuff' is showing."
Finally, she wants applicants to look approachable and comfortable. She recommends a flattering and up-to-date outfit but not something that looks like you just walked off a runway. Applicants should be ready to crawl around on the floor and brush the hair off “without looking like you just ruined your Sunday Go-to-Meeting outfit.”
Dr. Fred Gingrich, who owns a large animal practice and a small animal clinic, is in a unique position to discuss interview clothing.
“For a large animal interview, they have to wear appropriate farm clothes, by which I mean boots and coveralls. Underneath it, I really don't care what they're wearing. I wear a scrub top,” Gingrich said. “If I'm interviewing for a dairy position, I typically tell them what to wear and then to be prepared to change into small animal clothing for the afternoon. That's what I do every day.
“For women, in our farm-call work I would expect that they don't have a bunch of jewelry, and have hair pulled back so it doesn't get dirty. They shouldn't have fake nails as it hurts cows when you give them a rectal. You have to look like you've touched a cow before even if you haven't.”
Dressing for Gingrich's small animal clinic is a different matter. In that environment, he puts a high priority on staff appearance.
“The first thing a client sees when you walk in the room is you. If you look successful, then you are perceived as successful at what you do. This carries over into an interview. Sloppy dress would be a big red flag for me. I don't think you can overdress, but I do think you can under-dress.”
Candidates who show up to interview with Gingrich in jeans or a collarless shirt probably won't be hired because “they don't look like a doctor," he said.
When Gingrich is really interested in a candidate, he eventually takes the applicant to dinner to continue the interview. He expects the candidate to look professional.
“At dinner I would wear Docker pants and a collared shirt. I'd be impressed if he wore a suit. It means he wants the job,” Gingrich said.
The broadly defined "business casual" look is advised for veterinary technician applicants as well. But sometimes circumstances make that advice difficult to follow, such as when an employee is interviewing internally for a promotion.
Technician Sarah K. Mendelinskas faced just that puzzle at the 90-person hospital where she works in San Francisco. Mendelinskas always wears scrubs at work. Her interview for her former supervisor’s position was scheduled in the middle of her shift. The people who would interview her were co-workers she knew. Medelinskas had to decide whether to take the time during a busy day to change into interview clothes or remain in scrubs.
She figured that if it were she interviewing a nurse for a promotion, she would not expect the candidate to dress up on a work day, but she would expect to see a business-casual outfit if the candidate came in on a day off.
“I ended up wearing my most sparkling new scrubs, shined-up shoes and a nice cardigan. And I got the job!” Medelinskas wrote on a VSPN message board.
Now a technician supervisor, one of Medelinskas' duties is to interview technician applicants. When she invites applicants to interview, she would like to see those who are not coming directly from work wearing business-casual attire but understands that those who come directly from work may be dressed in work attire.
In an email to the VIN News Service, Medelinskas outlined her expectations to include “neat and clean, well-fitting pants, professional-looking top (tucking in for men) and sensible shoes."
"Sensible shoes are important," she added. "I cannot stand when people wear flip-flops to an interview. They are automatically eliminated from a tour of the hospital and therefore do not get to meet key staff members. No overwhelming jewelry or scents. Cell phones must be turned off. Do not show up with a coffee in hand. No tank tops, gym attire or baseball hats!”
Medelinskas prefers scrubs to a bad outfit, so for those who do not have business-casual clothing or aren't sure what it is, she recommends clean, pressed scrubs.
In sum, proper dress for veterinary interviews is highly dependent upon the environment, situation and individual styles of practices. One way to discern a given hospital's style is by checking staff photos on the target clinic's website. See what the doctors and technicians are wearing, and strive to match the look — or better yet, dress one notch above.
This isn't a fail-safe method, however. For example, Gingrich's website shows him in barn clothes, not the shirt and tie he wears to the small animal clinic. One cannot tell from the site how much value he places in professional appearance.
Some websites do not include staff photographs. In the absence of such clues, most veterinarians recommend dressing more formally than casually. Keeping scrubs or a lab coat in the car is one way to be ready for all possibilities.
Montana, who hired the poorly dressed woman whose appearance never improved, now is preparing to hire a permanent full-time associate. She won't overlook candidates' attire again.
“This time, I know that how they show up in the interview is how they're going to dress," she said. "It's like looking for husband material: You're not going to change him.”
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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