Would you hire this person?

Elizabeth Bentivegna, a senior at Oberlin College, was invited for an interview for a summer job at a Cleveland software company. Although she had alerted them that she would be late for her 4:00pm interview and in fact did arrive about 20 minutes after, she felt the interview went really well and so she was devastated when she was turned down.

What angered her was the reason for the rejection given by the recruiter, who according to Bentivegna, “She said they’d love to hire me based on my technical ability and my personality, but were not going to because A: I looked like I was about to go clubbing and not be on an interview, B: I had a huge run in my tights and C: I was late. And I told them I was going to be late.” Bentivegna felt that this focus on her appearance demonstrated sexist attitudes.

So, as is often the case these days, when people get angry she vented her feelings on social media, in this case Facebook, and as the news report says, “Before long, Bentivegna became the focus of intense debate about the male-dominated computer programming field and whether women are subjected to different standards of appearance than men.” The story was picked up by other outlets and generated a lot of mixed comments here and here.

However, one thing that the rejection did not do is put a dent in her self-esteem, because she ends the Facebook post with the following message to her once would-be employers.

“You clearly are too stupid to realize who you just turned down. You clearly don’t understand that I am going to change the world, and I’ll be damned if I let you stop me. Now get the hell out of my way while I find somebody worthy of my time and abilities.”

I have no idea what is the appropriate attire for a job interview in the tech sector where dress codes are reportedly much more casual than elsewhere or whether she was dressed appropriately (the newspaper article has a photo) or how much gender bias was involved in her rejection. It is also the case that what one wears after one is hired and has shown that one is a valuable employee, and what one wears before being hired are two different things.

I was talking with someone who advises graduates of high schools in Cleveland about getting jobs and she conducts mock interviews with them to help them prepare. She says that she is shocked by how unaware they are about the factors that go towards making a positive impression on interviewers. She says that some of them have no idea about how to dress, walk in, greet the interviewer, sit, respond to questions, and all the other factors that can impress or put off potential employers. Her job is to coach them on these things because whether we like it or not, in a job interview, it is the employer who holds all the power and on average they tend to be more conservative than the general public.

Bentivegna’s rant on Facebook shows the danger of instant access to social media. In the past, in the heat of her anger, she would have vented to friends and family and that would be the end of it. But by putting her message out far and wide, she has created a permanent record of one aspect of her personality. Nowadays many employers look at your social media profile and it is not clear that hers will help her in the future. With those who like brash self-assurance, it may help. But for those who seek a little humility, they may well think twice.


  1. MadHatter says

    I wouldn’t refuse to hire her based on that, but it would have put up a few flags regarding her inexperience. And for reference I’ve worked in academia/research now for years, where the every day dress code is based on either lab safety or comfort (if you work at a computer all day). I have a tattoo, a nose ring and for quite a while spikey short hair. However, for interviews I wore super conservative suit jacket & pants and removed the nose ring.

    I once wore khaki pants and a black polo shirt because I was dirt poor and couldn’t afford anything else. They hired me, and told me months later that they felt I’d been underdressed. For a job in a lab where we would be wearing jeans & tshirts all day. It doesn’t matter what the daily dress code is, it matters that you show up looking serious about the job.

    Everyone I interviewed coming straight out of college for programming jobs wore “business professional” attire as well. That’s not what she wore. That said, I’d take anything a recruiter says with a big grain of salt.

  2. Johnny Vector says

    The outfit is on the brash side, but so what? To paraphrase Hoban Washburne, “Woman walks into a job interview in a skirt like that, you know she’s not afraid of anything.”

    In my experience, finding a good programmer is near impossible. If she can code, think, and communicate, I don’t care if she’s got green hair and Clockwork Orange makeup.

    Actually, y’know what? I do believe a confident woman (again, assuming the bit about “love to hire me based on my technical ability and my personality” is true and not just the recruiter trying to be nice) would be a particular asset, in that she is likely to scare away the misogynist dudebros, thus making the workplace more attractive to women.

  3. dickspringer says

    I am 85 years old and worked for many years as a computer programmer and sometimes interviewed potential new hires. I tried not to consider irrelevant factors such as dress, self-confidence, extroversion, and other attributes people in human resources value and want people to show in job interviews. I guess nudity on the job would not have been allowed, but otherwise pretty much anything went. The one programmer I knew who wore a business suit at work was not a very good programmer.

  4. says

    If the company had no good reason not to hire her, they do now after she gave them one.

    I’m not qualified to work in human resources, but because I studied business admin, my bosses at ESL schools I work for (none are native English speakers) often ask me to sit in on or even do their job interviews for them. The choices of clothes, attitudes, manner and behaviours of some people are just astounding. This is just a short list of inappropriate things I can remember seeing:

    * resumes and cover letters rife with errors, unable to write in proper or complete sentences
    * poor grammar and speech patterns (and they want to teach English?)
    * arriving in t-shirts, shorts and/or sandals, or dressing that way for an online interview
    * showing up in person wearing headphones and not removing them until sitting down
    * unrealistic demands, or no preparation at all (no questions, thoughts, concerns)
    * unwashed and/or unshaven
    * asking about time off, vacations and side jobs in the first ten minutes of the interview
    * eating and chewing gum
    * playing the victim (i.e. like Bentivegna. they’ve been fired or not had jobs and blame others)
    * acting like citizens working there don’t exist (what, you can’t even say hello to them?)
    * foreign men seeking “Asian honey” wives, racists or people with other emotional issues

    Among others. The worst part is, sometimes these people get hired because they’re the only candidate or they’re the best of a bad lot. Most foreigners only want to work in the largest cities, not in the suburbs or smaller towns.

  5. Chiroptera says

    Another datum showing why I do not have a Facebook account, don’t want a Facebook account, and have no desire to look at anyone else’s Facebook account.

  6. doublereed says

    Dress codes vary amongst organizations and amongst areas. Some organizations care more about looks than others, and East Coasters tend to demand more stringent dress codes than West Coasters. I’ve been told that West Coasters will make fun of you if you show up to an interview in a suit. But in any interview you should caution toward the more conservative side just because you don’t know what people dress as.

    I don’t really see why venting on her facebook page would necessarily hurt her. All they did was comment about her appearance. So if you’re an employer and you don’t care about her appearance, I don’t know why that would turn you off to her. Who cares.

  7. doublereed says

    And since when organizations tell you why they reject you? Why would they do that, and then give you such superficial rejection reasons rather than something more generic?

    I’m sorry, but everything about that just sounds both stupid and yea, totally sexist.

  8. Daniel Schealler says

    For a technical IT job, I see nothing wrong with that outfit.

    I’m a bit conflicted about her reaction. On the one hand, she’s exactly right that the reason they gave her for turning down her application was bullshit.

    On the other hand, how you handle and respond to conflict is important. I wouldn’t be comfortable with a team member that was likely to fly off the chain online or even over email when pushed. Very important guideline when it comes to work-related writing: Never type while angry.

  9. moarscienceplz says

    I graduated college at a time when there was huge demand for people trained in electronics. I interviewed for eight companies, one of which was IBM. It was rumored that IBM expected (male) applicants to wear a shirt and tie. I wore a t-shirt and jeans to all eight interviews and got offers from seven. Guess which one passed on me. I was very glad to find out that IBM valued appearance over expertise, because we would not have been happy with each other. For a software position, i think it is ridiculous that that company would care what she wore. If anything, she is too well dressed to be a code jockey. Besides, this is only a summer job. Why be so uptight about such a nothing issue?

  10. weatherwax says

    I once got chided for my appearance when I was simply dropping off the application. I thought it was a bit odd as I’d bicycled to the place, and I was just leaving the application with the clerk.

    On the other hand, I found myself on the flip side when I was working in Humboldt County, marijuana and hippie capital of the world. People would come in with applications half dressed and unbathed. One even had bugs falling out of his hair onto the counter. He was particularly mad because we picked up his application like it was radioactive, and he thought that was a poor way to treat someone who’d just graduated with a Bachelors in Literature.

  11. filethirteen says

    When I was hiring, I told people in advance to dress casual. As long as they didn’t stink, I could hardly have cared less what they looked like; it was their minds I was interested in. The one person who came wearing suit and tie didn’t do himself any favours and I told him so.

    It may actually help Elisabeth in the long run to have vented on Facebook. It might save her wasted time by not having to consider companies that she wouldn’t be happy in anyway. I wish her luck and I agree with what she said. To me, speaking as an IT employer, it wouldn’t hurt her chances. It would be her intelligence, personality and skill-set that I would be evaluating, not her dress sense.

  12. Heidi Nemeth says

    Do cultural norms change if no one challenges them? Good for her for challenging the bias against women in looks, attire and makeup that is so all important in interviews. And good for her for challenging the biases against women in IT. Elizabeth B probably would not be happy at the company that rejected her, but I predict she will do well with her capabilities and she will help to change the culture.
    Sartorially, Cleveland is very conservative and Oberlin is very liberal. Oberlin students are often misfits when they venture off campus. Why wouldn’t an employer want the best talent (no matter how odd looking) doing its IT work?

  13. Jim B says

    I’ve interviewed more than a hundred people over the years for EE/programming positions, but it isn’t a task I like. Personally, I don’t care how the person dresses, but first impressions (right or wrong) do matter more to some, so it is best to play it safe. Having looked at her outfit in the linked article, I didn’t see anything wrong with it.

    The thing I’m surprised about is that the company would give this feedback to the recruiter. The large companies I’ve worked for are very careful about giving feedback for fear of attracting lawsuits from people who feel rejected. It is very possible that while she was qualified for the job, there were multiple qualified candidates and they picked someone stronger. It was clearly a mistake to say that her looks affected that choice, though.

  14. lanir says

    I work in IT. Long before I started in the field Catholic schooling taught me to utterly despise dress-up clothing. I will never wear the obnoxious, useless stuff again. The recruiter I was going through did tell me to wear a suit and tie to the interview so I did. And got rejected. Then the same place invited me back a couple months later and I went dressed up. Rejected again. Months after that they invited me a third time. I went in jeans and a t-shirt because it was a 2 hour drive each way to the place and they did 3-4 hour long technical interviews with hands-on aspects both times. It turns out they invited me back a third time just to make sure I was the same person they remembered from the other 2 interviews. They hired me after a few minutes. The place wasn’t very professional and I ended up angry a lot and venting. They fired me over it once then regretted it and hired me back. Ended up in another job with a 50% pay increase shortly after.

    From that point on I wore polo shirts and jeans to interviews. Once I get hired for the job it’s all t-shirts and jeans. Sometimes people talk to me about dressing up but I simply tell them I will be unhappy in any place that focuses on appearances so much and they’ll be equally unhappy with me. I have to work to not be socially awkward when meeting people for the first time anyway, wearing silly clothes that annoy me is just going to make that harder.

    I’ve sat in on some interviews in a couple places. I tend to look at clothing and presentation as an opportunity to impress. It doesn’t mean absolutely nothing in most cases so it’s hard to say honestly that it doesn’t matter at all. But it’s like being relaxed, confident and witty at an interveiw. It isn’t required for most jobs but if you carry it off well it’s likely to be a mark in your favor.

    I work as a linux systems administrator. In my field it isn’t the employer who has all the cards. I already have a job and am approached frequently with other opportunities. I can afford to tell them to impress me. That takes a couple years of work history to do and I wouldn’t expect someone just out of college to pull it off. Elizabeth is right to blow it off and move on. Generally it seems to be a bad idea to call the employer out by name but in this case there was obviously some idiocy involved so I don’t know how that will reflect on her. Especially with a recruiter involved it’s pretty easy for them to claim they didn’t actually say those words. They may even be right.

  15. John Horstman says

    I would hire Bentivegna in a heartbeat, more so becasue she took to Facebook to call out the business. That tells me she isn’t afraid to speak up when there are problems with how someone with potential or actual power over her is behaving, and that is very much a person I want working for me becasue that is someone who will help combat entrenched systems of waste or corruption that inevitably come to plague any large bureaucratic organization. That is also someone who will help limit institutional liability by reporting problems right away instead of covering her own ass and allowing things to get even worse -- if a manager is sexually harassing employees, for example, I want to know ASAP to get rid of (probably) him before he can harass more employees and expose the business to multiple lawsuits or a class action lawsuit (even without pro-social concerns, corruption and discrimination are bad from a self-interested market standpoint). Of course, I don’t view authoritarian submission as a positive quality anyway.

  16. says

    I see that the majority of comments here are ignoring an imporant point: You’re not the one who decides if she gets hired, the company is. Whether their reasons were sexist or not is yet to be determined, so don’t assume it is. And just because you approve of a person’s appearance does not mean others will. No, I haven’t looked at her photo and don’t intend to.

    There’s more than one reason -- and some are valid -- for employers dictating an employee’s appearance. In my line of work, visible tattoos aren’t allowed -- either you cover them up, or you don’t get the job. Employers make that a condition of employment because customers would take their business elsewhere if people showed their tattoos. It’s a silly rule, and even some school owners think it is, but customers are the ones paying so you cater to them or they go somewhere else.

  17. doublereed says

    @18 leftover1under

    What do you mean, “Whether their reasons were sexist or not is yet to be determined, so don’t assume it is”? We have as much information as we’re ever going to get on this. They gave their reasons for rejecting her. People aren’t assuming anything. What are you talking about? We can make whatever judgements we want about it, and that can include looking at her photo and making a judgement.

    If her clothes were too casual, then maybe she’s just a bad fit for the organization. As I said, different organizations do different things. But I find it baffling that an organization would openly say they rejected her because of her outfit. That’s begging for horrible PR.

  18. Matt G says

    I went to Oberlin, and was pretty mainstream there (while out here I’m a flaming liberal). I expected some wild outfit, but see nothing wrong with what she wore. I interviewed for a science research job in NYC in my senior year, and am pretty sure I wore a suit and tie. After getting the job, it was jeans and T-shirts.

  19. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    A: I looked like I was about to go clubbing and not be on an interview, B: I had a huge run in my tights

    I wouldn’t care about these things at all. Then again, I am socially stupid, and I also generally don’t care about the irrelevant details of decorum.

    C: I was late.

    Totally legitimate and reasonable reason to refuse to hire someone. Calling in that you will be late doesn’t make this problem go away.

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