It’s been 20 years since Retha Du Plessis walked into her first job interview. She was awkward, nervous, and could tell she didn’t fit in. Now, as an accomplished human resource professional, she’s using her own experience as motivation to help others break down the barriers to employment.
On a warm Friday evening, Du Plessis is sitting in a sun-bathed home office, her hair and make-up still perfect from a busy day as human resources director at an exclusive inner-city grammar school, the gin beside her computer the only hint of the approaching weekend. The ceiling fan maintains an almost hypnotic rhythm on my computer screen as she picks up her laptop and shows me the lush tropical garden outside her window, before introducing me to the two dogs sprawled across the floor behind her, chewing on what she hopes is a dog toy.
“Welcome to Brisbane,” she smiles.
A life and career in Brisbane are a long way from the childhood and adolescent years Du Plessis spent in her native South Africa. Growing up in Potchefstroom, a small, predominantly Afrikaans speaking city in the country’s north-west, she smiles recalling her own education at the local state school – an institution which taught discipline and respect but would “freak the Australians out completely”, she laughs.
It was a school where fingernail and fringe length were enforced, make-up was banned, and boys’ hair had to be cropped neatly above the ears. She recalls a boy in her class being sent into a separate room following one schoolyard inspection, the local military barber waiting to address his unruly and non-compliant hair with a stern warning and buzz-cut. The discipline was strict, however school wasn’t a bad experience.
“It’s just the way things were. We didn’t know anything different. Mum used to say, ‘Get on your bike, just get there and don’t cause trouble’, and so that’s what we did,” Du Plessis says.
It’s in stark contrast to what Du Plessis has experienced at the inner-city grammar school since starting work there in 2019. “It’s opportunity,” she says. “That’s the biggest difference. It’s not that young people today have it any easier than we did, but the opportunities they have now are incredible.”
Feeling awkward and nervous
Du Plessis completed her university studies in Potchefstroom, graduating with a degree in Psychology and Industrial Sociology. She was educated, young and driven, but university had done very little to prepare her for the workforce, and she cringes remembering her first job interview.
“I’d just finished uni. I’d grown up in a small town and went for a job interview in Sandton in Johannesburg, which was really flash. I could feel it when I walked in. I was awkward and nervous, and I just didn’t look like everyone else. You could see I was different, and I felt different.”
She got the job. But the experience remained with Du Plessis throughout her career, eventually leading her to consider how she could best combine her professional skills and life experience to help others succeed.
“I’d been in HR my whole career, but I came to a point where I needed to start thinking about what I would do beyond my MBA to give back to the world,” she says. “When I heard about Suited to Success, I jumped at the opportunity to be a part of it. No one else offers this type of support to jobseekers.”
Helping others feel the part
Suited to Success is a not-for-profit organisation which helps people overcome barriers to employment. Du Plessis explains: “We provide individual styling services to people when they are going for interviews, support with resume tips and tricks, interview advice, and how to present yourself and put your best foot forward.”
The organisation supports about 1500 job seekers in Queensland every year, with a vision of “inspiring hope and self-belief for brighter futures”.
The Dress for Success styling boutique is central to the work the organisation does. Operating out of its Brisbane headquarters, the service provides jobseekers a 90-minute private styling session including wardrobe and make-up tips, accessories, personal hygiene products and an interview-appropriate outfit to keep.
For some, it can be an emotional and confronting experience. “When someone is styled, they’re the only one in the boutique. There’s no one else around.” Du Plessis says. “People can be vulnerable and fragile, and it doesn’t help the experience if it’s rushed. We make it conversational, and it allows people to be comfortable.”
Reflecting on her own experience in recruitment, it’s a service Du Plessis believes can make all the difference. “I’ve seen so many people come in and they’re not confident, and they don’t present well enough,” she says. “The reality is it makes you question whether they can do the job. Whether it’s a conscious or unconscious bias, it exists.”
However, Du Plessis believes the real value of the program is more than the clothes, make-up and accessories clients are provided. “It’s all useful stuff,” she says. “But the stuff isn’t really what we’re about. We give people confidence, and confidence gives people opportunity. If someone gets a job, that’s wonderful. But our main aim is to break down the barriers.”
An industry perspective
Louise Ruddy has seen the challenges jobseekers can face without the support of organisations such as Suited to Success. As National Human Resources Leader for a sporting goods retailer, Ruddy leads the company’s Australian recruitment function. “We can have hundreds of applications for a single position,” she says. “So, to land a job, a candidate has to make a strong first impression. They need to be confident and comfortable in an interview setting and put their best foot forward.”
Ruddy believes there’s a growing need for organisations such as Suited to Success in the community. “2020 has been a challenging year for so many people, and any support that can get jobseekers into meaningful employment is a great thing”.
Suited for Success helped Jayson
A former Suited to Success client himself, Jayson O’Hara understands some of the barriers clients face in their journey to employment. O’Hara connected with the organisation for support in his own job search, ultimately gaining permanent employment. He now volunteers with the organisation as a stylist, providing one-on-one support to clients as they prepare the perfect interview outfit.
“The difference in a client’s confidence before and after a styling session is remarkable,” he says. “It’s the best thing about doing what I do, being able to give someone that confidence to go out and make the most of an opportunity.”
There is no fee for the styling service, and the client gets to keep the clothes, accessories, make-up and personal hygiene products they’re given. Jayson says it’s important the service remains fee-free, because it makes it accessible to all. “We’ll help anyone who walks through the door,” he says.
From volunteer to board member
Since joining Suited to Success as a volunteer in 2018, Du Plessis has taken on a Board director position. It’s a role she completes alongside her full-time HR director role, and the opportunity to be able to do both is something she finds rewarding.
“Allowing myself to contribute to the community, but also have this professional piece where I’m comfortable doing these other things I also think are important, is the perfect mix for me,” she says.
It is hard work, but it’s success stories like Jayson’s that keep Du Plessis going. “I’ve been given so many opportunities since that first job interview. If there’s one little thing I can do to help someone just get their foot in the door, or knock down one barrier, that’s a huge impact on someone’s life, and that’s what I’m proud of.”