- By Lisa Vaas
A purple shirt, matching tie and pocket square, and very large eyeglasses: It was a look straight out of the 80s.
It would have been fine if he had been auditioning for a remake of Dallas, but alas, he was a screenwriter in Los Angeles: the land of casual (but expensive) jeans, jackets and retro (as in Buddy Holly, not Three's Company) eyeglasses.
Career coach David Couper advised him to update his look if he wanted to work.
The screenwriter took offense. The only thing that mattered, he told Couper, was whether someone liked his script.
"In a way, he was right," Couper says. "But he would have stood a better chance of being taken seriously when he met someone if he looked the part."
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This is no time to be change-phobic. The amount of time older workers spend out of work is at a record high — well over a year — and it's now taking someone age 55 or older more than three months longer to find a job than his younger counterparts, according to a recent AARP survey in Forbes.
Appearance feedback can be tough for anyone to take, but it's generally tougher for men. Lisa Johnson Mandell knows that all too well. She's a journalist and author of Career Comeback: Repackage Yourself to Get the Job You Want and she's done her share of makeovers. Mandell was actually part of a team of career coaches, financial planners and image consultants who coached jobless subjects for the CBS Early Show's "Job Squad" segment. When the Job Squad team set out to freshen up Jack Iannaccone, a man who had worked more than 20 years in the pharmaceutical industry, Mandell was the only image consultant who didn't shrink from the task of getting a balding, gray-haired man with an outdated mustache to freshen up his look.
Men typically aren't accustomed to this type of criticism, and they show it. "Men don't like change," Mandell says. "And they're not used to being judged by their looks."
If you're 50+ and looking for a job, you already know that times have changed. To show that you can change with them, here are some areas you might want to focus on:
(More: Next Avenue's Top 10 Career Tips of 2012)
Dye another day. Men can get away with more gray than women — it makes guys look distinguished. Bruce Hurwitz, an executive recruiter, president and chief executive of Hurwitz Strategic Staffing Ltd., advises men against dying their hair at all. "The employer will be able to figure out their age regardless of what they do," Hurwitz says. "Usually, they just look silly."
If you decide to dye, don't pick a solid, dark color. Elizabeth Lions, career coach and author of I Quit! Working for You Isn't Working for Me, says her male clients tend to overdo it. "If you dye your hair, keep it dyed the right color," she emphasizes. "Men often over-dye and go too dark. Pay the money and have this done professionally."
Update your hairstyle. This is a tricky one, given how industry-specific hairstyles can be. For example, men's ponytails can be just fine in certain jobs, like technical positions and creative ones.
On the other hand, Mandell advised Jack Iannaccone to shave his head to help him find work in a more conservative field. Shaving your head to hide, or, really, to embrace, baldness is a "fabulous trick," Mandell says.
Comb-overs are a big, flat-out no, no, no. They leave men open to ridicule. Put the comb down and back away from the mirror. It's far better to shave your head completely, Mandell says.
Don't let facial hair date you. Talking Iannaccone into shaving off the caterpillar on his upper lip was a tough sell, given that he'd had facial hair since he was 17. The truth is, a single mustache on its own is considered dated. Hipsters, however, are wearing skinny little mustaches. That's fine — for hipsters. Nobody's going to confuse a 50-year-old for a hipster, though.
A well-manicured beard is OK. Not a long, grizzled one. A goatee or Van Dyke can work, but soul patches are strictly out. "Soul patches look like you're trying to look young, and it just looks stupid," Mandell says.
Pass the smell test. Rebecca Lyles, a project management professional and owner of Text CPR LLC, a consultancy that provides writing, editing and education development services, has interviewed many 50-plus men. One negative thing she has noticed has been the reek of cigarette smoke. "Most smokers don't realize how the odor permeates their clothing and hair so that even a breath mint doesn't make it go away," she says.
Smokers should keep their dry-cleaned or laundered interview clothes in plastic until they put them on, then refrain from smoking in the car during the drive over.
Dress for the job you want. Experts recommend that you check out the corporate environment before you go on an interview. Visit the building, if you can, when everyone is coming and going to lunch. What are they wearing? Alternatively, if it's a big enough company, call human resources and ask what's appropriate.
For high tech, wearing a suit isn't just overdressing; it can be career suicide. They'll probably just laugh at you. For example, Mandell's husband has a post-production company in the voice-over talent industry. If an engineer comes to an interview in a suit, regardless of his or her age, Mandell's husband assumes the engineer hasn't worked in a long, long time.
Does all this sound annoyingly superficial? Of course, we're free to pick and choose the appearance advice we take to heart. But if you're mulling a new look, you might want to bear in mind this image of Jack Iannaccone: Two days after his makeover, he's walking down the street with a shaved dome and clean lip, clad in a sharp suit and bright tie.
Jack bumps into a friend he hasn't seen since high school.
"You look incredible!" the friend says. "You haven't aged a day since high school! You must be doing great, huh?"
One thing led to another and Jack was hired, eventually becoming part owner of his friend's medical publishing company.
Will that happen to every man who shaves his pate or whitens his teeth?
But it sure can't hurt to try.