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Are job titles still relevant in 2019?

What’s in a name? From letting employees choose their own job titles to eliminating them all together.

If I told you that I was the ‘chief noodler’ at my organisation, would that mean anything to you? I’m not. I’m just your average writer. But if I was able to choose my own title, that’s what I’d go with and in some organisations employees can do just that.

Job titles are increasingly becoming more and more ambiguous and are often used as a means to promote an employee without financial compensation. But while some think we should do away with titles altogether, others make a compelling argument for why they should stay.

No title at all

The movement to strip workers of their job titles has been around for a while now.

Back In Motion CEO, Jason T Smith, told Wellness Daily that titles put employees into a box. He attributes the companies financial success – it’s worth $50 million dollars – to de-titling his employees. Prior to implementing this model, Smith says the company wasn’t working to its optimal level.

“Job titles and lines of reporting became discriminatory. Strategy and decisions were mostly formulated in a linear, top-down fashion. Conversations happened behind closed doors. Without noticing it, elitism and class divisions crept into our workplace. Influence was driven more by seniority and position, rather than by intelligence and merit. Creativity died,” says Smith.

They’re not the only organisation to achieve success from this approach. Performance and Security company CloudFare also decided to ditch titles, citing three main reasons:

  • Promoting fairness across the organisation
  • Forcing employees to leave their egos at the door
  • Allowing employees to flip between roles

“When you hire Adam, you may expect him to manage Bob. On another project, those roles might need to flip. With limited hierarchy, the best employees for the project can lead that project,” co-founder Matthew Prince told Inc.

In 2019 many believe you have to find the balance between giving people structure and stifling them. But a lack of titles might be a step too far.

According to the 2018 Job Titling report (preview only) from Pearl Meyer, which surveyed 219 organisations in America, 40 per cent of organisations said job titles were important as they conveyed responsibility and authority, and 77 per cent of respondents felt the titles accurately conveyed the organisation’s hierarchy.

Titles clearly communicate what an individual does within an organisation to others. This is especially important for new starters. Defined titles avoid them wasting time asking ‘senior’ team members about where they keep the pens.

If an organisation does decide to forgo titles, role transparency is key. According to Suzanne Harrison, senior corporate recruiter at ZipRecruiter, the number one reason people leave their job is because it’s not what they expected or they’re not doing what they were hired for.

‘Fun’ titles

A quarter of the respondents of the Pearl Meyer report say their employees are involved in creating their own titles.

This could lead to a lack of consistency, which could be problematic. If two employees are performing the same tasks, but go by different titles, employees from other divisions may be confused about who they should go to for a specific task. HR teams also struggle with this. Should you direct your workplace complaint to the employee experience lead or the people manager?

If employees are able to call the shots on their titles, there could be a lack of transparency around what they’re actually capable of doing. If you’re allowed to name yourself as a chief ‘anything’, that comes with a level of prestige. If you were to then move to a new organisation, and your LinkedIn profile or CV read chief ‘anything’, this can be misleading to the recruiter. They may think you have more experience or skills than you really do. 

Not only are organisations having to manage the ambiguity of roles, now they’ve also got to consider if they’re undermining their reputation with ‘fun’ titles making their way into organisational charts.

While you might think titles such as “director of fundom” (aka: marketing manager) would be a recent addition to the workplace, they’ve actually been around for at least a decade. Game company Cranium may have been behind this silliness, with their co-creators previously referred to as the ‘chief noodler’ and ‘grand poo bah’ of the organisation.

Career coach Ashley Stahl says,“If you saw ‘paranoid in chief’ at Yahoo on an application that you were evaluating, would you know that title is for the person in charge of all information security at Yahoo? More importantly, would you believe it? It looks more like a book title than a job title. And you don’t want to be HR’s resume entertainment on their lunch break.”

If you’re looking to sell your company, do you risk losing some of your bargaining power if you introduce yourself as Whit Alexander, chief noodler? (Perhaps not. Cranium ended up selling for $77 million in 2008.)

Allowing employees to choose their own titles does have its upside. Research from the Academy of Management Journal used the Make-a-Wish Foundation (MAW) as a case study; the chief operating officer is called the ‘minister of dollars and sense’ and the PR managers are ‘magic messengers and heralders of good news’.

The research found that such titles decreased stress levels and employee burnout, and helped workers to harness a strong identity at work. The ‘fun’ titles allowed employee to engage in what the researchers call “cognitive reappraisal”, defusing the stress that comes with working alongside sick children by diverting their attention to the “meaningful and rewarding” elements of their job.

One MAW employee said: “It is exhausting to do some of this work . . . to keep your energy up, these things really help… [the self-reflective title] is a reminder to me that we are here to be happy and bring joy. The negative feelings don’t last long because it encourages positive thinking. It brings your mind back to the good side of life. It makes me put everything into perspective.”

This approach works well from an internal sense but perhaps externally employees should have traditional sounding roles to avoid public confusion or turning off  potential new hires. If you refer to a receptionist role as a ‘director of first impressions’ it could deter a perfectly appropriate candidate from applying, likely because they have no idea what you’re talking about.

A new title in lieu of a promotion

Would we perform better if we were given an inflated title? Last week HRM looked into the Golem Effect – when high expectations of employees lead to an increase in their performance outcomes. If you can add the word “senior” to your title, that could elevate your confidence levels and in turn the quality of your work. But while a title change might be the cheapest perk an employer could offer, is it the most ethical?

We know that employees, especially those aged 18-34, are happy to take on a promotion without an increase to their paycheck if they feel it will benefit their career in the long run, but some employers may be taking advantage of this.

If there are no changes to your responsibilities, but an employer just wants to shake things up or reward employees’ hard work, a new title may just be the right fit. But if an employee’s workload increases – say they step into a management role or take on a heavier client load – many people believe they should be paid more for their efforts.

Also, if an organisation makes a habit of tacking on redundant words in a job title, they risk rendering the whole practice irrelevant.

For example, it’s common for American financial services employees to be referred to as a ‘vice president’ which has much less impact than it does in the White House. Goldman Sachs has been quoted saying that the title of VP is just a “courtesy title” given to one third of their employee pool, much like a Subway service worker is referred to as a “sandwich artist”. This leaves people wondering what it is that you actually do.

What are your thoughts on job titles? Share your opinions in the comment section below.

Want learn about the most effective ways to engage new talent in your organisation? Check out AHRI’s short course ‘Attracting and retaining talent’ for expert advice.

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I could see how this may work in the private sector, but surely this is an impossibility in the public sector (Government bodies and defence) that relies heavily on hierarchy, reporting lines, and legislative delegations.
Saying that, I wouldn’t mind changing my title from “Learning & Development Officer” to “Gatekeeper of the Tomes of Knowledge”.

Negar Riazati - Performia Australia
Negar Riazati - Performia Australia

This is an interesting point. We find that sometimes businesses get a bit too caught up in defining the job title, only to find that in the end it does not actually correspond to what the person is doing in the role and the results expected. One of the tips we give is to work back from the end result; first define the end result required then work back from that to define the role and title that would communicate best. Internal titles can be fun and not necessarily the same as what is advertised

Adrian Kaminski
Adrian Kaminski

I agree, job titles should have died with the dodo bird, but the biggest issue is lazy recruitment managers that won’t be able to skim through resumes, giving little if any thought to a potential candidates abilities.

Adrian Kaminski
Adrian Kaminski

I agree, job titles should have died with the dodo bird, but the biggest issue is lazy recruitment managers that won’t be able to skim through resumes, giving little if any thought to the potential candidates abilities.

Max Underhill
Max Underhill

A “fun” article, but what we call positions may not be important but the definition of outcomes, performance measures & competence required to produce these outcomes at std. set by the perf. measures is. I thought we had dropped “job” as defining the current and future positions years ago. Structures is as critical today then ever & defining “the contributing elements” is absolutely essential. Basis for empowerment. Remember banks were first to coin People & Culture!

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