do my clothes and car make me look like I don’t “need” a job — and is that a problem?

A reader writes:

My question relates to interview attire and accessories. I am an attorney with just under 15 years of experience. Many of those years have been spent in self employment, which I fear already impedes/impacts my job search. Recently my family relocated, within our home state, to accommodate my husband’s career as he is the primary earner in our family. As a result, I stopped taking new clients, provided my staff with severance, and am wrapping up old matters. Ultimately I do not think it would be financially productive to open a new office in my new city, but I want to continue in my work as I find it meaningful, challenging, and a large part of who I am.

I have been attempting to network with former colleagues who are now in the new area and put my feelers out for positions in small firms in my practice area. Yesterday, at a lunch with one such colleague who I respect very much I was given the feedback that “to seek a job you should look like you need a job.” I did not know what he was trying to communicate so I asked for feedback. He indicated that my wedding rings and some of my personal fashion/style (handbags, shoes, even my car) make me appear to not need a job and so make me a less competitive candidate.

I do not generally wear jewelry beyond my wedding rings, not even simple earrings. I never wear or use items that have logos or anything flashy. I pretty much wear a single colored dress and usually black or nude shoes each day with a blazer and minimal makeup. Sometimes I might wear a pants suit or slacks and a sweater. While I do drive a newer “luxury” SUV, it is paid off and I cannot afford a new car at this time.

What do you advise in regard to looking like I “need a job?” Should I really be as concerned about this as my colleague thinks? I’m now horribly self-conscious that my appearance comes off poorly. If it helps I’m a family law attorney with the bulk of my experience being in domestic violence and high conflict custody disputes. This is not a practice area where I have felt people are very focused on appearance.

This is weird advice.

It’s true that if you show up for an interview dripping in jewelry and expensive designer brands, you are sending certain signals about yourself that can be problematic in some lines of work. But you don’t sound like you’re presenting yourself that way.

Of course, if your black or nude shoes are $4,000 Louboutins and your handbag is a $15,000 Birkin bag, your colleague might have a point. Even if the styles themselves are relatively conservative, people who know fashion often know price ranges too, and yes, some people will judge — which could be anything from thinking you don’t “need” a job, as he said, to just thinking you’re unusually high-fashion for a family lawyer.

But the way you’ve described yourself makes me think that’s not what’s going on … which makes me want to know more about your colleague. What do you know about his judgment? Is he generally savvy or have you found him to be off at other times? Does he work in an area of law where any display of financial privilege might seem off? Does he have a weird relationship with money that might be influencing him here? Has he been wearing the same inexpensive suit since 1997?

Ultimately it’s hard to give you a definitive answer without seeing your work wardrobe, so your best bet is to run this by other people who know you, the way you come across, and your industry. But based on what you’ve described here, I’d be inclined to ignore this as a one-off piece of misapplied advice.

I do want to talk more, though, about this idea of not “needing” a job. Plenty of people don’t “need” jobs — their spouse earns a lot, they invested well, they have family money, etc. — and are excellent at their work anyway. To the extent that good employers are concerned about people who don’t need to work, the concern is about people who won’t be fully committed, who will choose jetting off to an island for the weekend over staying when work needs to be done, and/or who will walk out as soon as things are hard. If those things are true of someone, they would be a less attractive candidate. But you’ll be able to show that’s not you by how you conduct yourself in the hiring process (don’t reschedule an interview so you can jet off to an island, for one thing) and by the strong work track record it sounds like you’ll be presenting.

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