Do you think your job title is an important part of your identity or does it hold you back from sharing your varied skill set? HRM weighs up the pros and cons.
You might be called the Head of People and Culture. You could be the People Expert or the HR Lead. Or, to borrow a term from the start-up world, you could call yourself the Chief Vibes Officer.
At the end of the day, does it really matter?
Some people would say ‘absolutely’. They might think your title defines where you sit in the company and that it’s a way to signal to your network and potential employers what you’ve done, what you know and how far you’ve come.
Others think we place too much emphasis on job titles. They might say they’re restrictive and old fashioned, and run counter to the agile, fast-moving work environments that we’re trying to build post COVID-19.
The arguments on both sides are compelling, so let’s dive into some of them.
Who cares about job titles?
First, it’s worth looking at why some people care about their job titles. In many instances, it’s a personal preference. Ask yourself: “Do I think my job title is an important part of my identity?”
When I answer that question truthfully, the answer is ‘yes’. I like people knowing that I’ve worked hard to progress in my career, but that could be because I’m a millennial. According to an article from Quartz authored by Ariel Schur, CEO of ABS Staffing Solutions, job titles matter a lot to millennials.
In fact, Schur says she’s seen millennial candidates trade as much as $10,000 in salary for a more impressive job title. This is only anecdotal evidence, of course, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
So why do millennials care about what they’re called? Schur suggests it could have something to do with shaping the perceptions others have of us. For a generation that’s grown up in the world of Instagram and self-branding, this seems like a reasonable conclusion.
While that might not sit right with some people reading this, it could be a clever way to skip a few rungs in the ladder – sacrifice a little now for future gains. In fact, employees under the age of 34 are more likely (72 per cent) to accept a promotion without a pay raise – so, potentially, a new title and responsibilities – compared to their colleagues 55 years or older (53 per cent).
So it’s clear that some individuals value job titles, but what about the people charged with hiring and workforce planning? HRM put the question to HR professionals via a poll in the AHRI LinkedIn Lounge (exclusive to AHRI members) and over 100 people responded.
Forty seven per cent said they believed job titles were still “very important” versus just 26 per cent who said job titles were no longer relevant.
Arguments for keeping job titles centred around the sense of identity they can provide.
Of those who voted against the relevance of job titles, one person said job titles are too varied across industries, stating, “a manager in one organisation might be a fairly low level administrative role with 5-6 direct reports while in another they might have a key organisational role with several divisions reporting to them and a large budget responsibility”.
The argument for keeping job titles
While some people would be led to believe it’s their ego driving their desired job title, there are plenty of practical reasons to consider.
Firstly, not having a title means it’s hard to benchmark your role against industry standards. This could mean you’re getting swindled on your salary without having hard data to point to in order to prove it. It also means if you’re picking up the slack in areas outside your remit, you’d have less of a case for being compensated for this extra work without a clear title.
Titles are also a clear and quick way to demonstrate career progression to prospective employers. Without a defined role, candidates have to rely on the recruiter to get into the weeds of their resume, which outlines exactly how and where they’ve added value. A busy recruiter with 100 resumes to get through might not have the time to do this.
Also, feeling as though you’re working above and beyond your title without recognition can be demoralising; role ambiguity can lead to all kinds of issues. In this sense, knowing exactly where everyone stands could create ease throughout the organisation, especially during times of widespread uncertainty.
“If leadership is on track and they’re doing the right thing, they could call me Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck, it wouldn’t matter.” – Jane Oorschot, HR Management Associate, Leading Roles
On the self-branding note again, while some people might think this is self-indulgent or unnecessary, there’s an argument to be made for the importance of status at work.
It could give individuals a sense of pride and accomplishment and, on a team level, it clearly outlines who is responsible for what – again, removing uncertainty.
Titles can also be beneficial in job evaluations, as they’re often overlaid with salary conversations, says Jane Oorschot, HR Management Associate at Leading Roles in Townsville, Queensland.
“I still think there’s a role for job titles in organisations,” she says. “The reality is, with bigger organisations, you really need some structure to be able to say, ‘Those positions are like each other, that’s why they’re paid $100K not 150K.”
The issue some people have with job titles is probably about position descriptions (PD), says Oorschot.
“That might be where the limitations are. They can be too narrowly focused,” she says. “A PD should give a person a description of their [entire] purpose.”
In that sense, perhaps it’s not about removing people’s titles but re-thinking how we determine their remit. You could aim to revisit PDs as part of your regular performance review catch ups, so you’re adding/removing tasks on a consistent basis, so the employee always has a single source of truth as to what their role entails.
The argument for axing job titles
For every good reason to keep job titles, there are as many compelling arguments to axe them.
“I think we put too much value on titles,” says Matthew Thomas, Director of Xformation consulting.
“There are intrinsic reasons why they’re important for individuals and organisations, but at the same time is there a different way of looking at how someone’s role can be captured that supports what we say around the future of work?”
The future, he says, is about creating a human-centric design to work, rather than clinging to traditional hierarchies.
Prior to opening his own consultancy, Thomas spent over 8 years as the General Manager of People and Culture for a racing organisation in Western Australia, so he’s seen a lot of resumes pass over his desk.
“To be honest, job titles were the last thing I would look at, because they’re the least significant factor.”
While this might not be reflective of the average busy recruiter, as mentioned above, he thinks it’s time employers paid attention to what actually matters in a resume: what they’ve done, what they’re capable of doing and where they show promise. This should all be irrespective of their title, he says.
“Sometimes titles are just created to placate people because they think it’s going to be received differently in the external market, because their title says ‘Head of…’ rather than ‘Senior Manager.'”
Another reason to do away with job titles is that they can be restrictive.
You don’t want to miss out on diversity of thought in the best of times, least of all now when organisations are calling on their people to bring innovative, creative solutions to the table as we bounce back from the pandemic.
“Organisations are more agile and team based [now]. We need to create environments where everyone can draw on their own skillset to help [the company] deliver.”
For instance, if you have a Social Media Manager with great PR skills, you might miss the opportunity to utilise those skills if that person feels they need to stay in their lane.
“There’s always going to be a decision maker, because there has to be, but if we’re talking about human-centered design and bringing more collaboration and innovation to work, then wouldn’t it be great if we stopped basing those ideas on titles but actually building upon what people can bring to that particular discussion? We want people to have a shared voice and contribution.”
On top of this, we know from plenty of research that when employees have more autonomy over their day-to-day tasks and colour outside the lines, so to speak – a concept known as job crafting – they get a greater sense of meaning and fulfilment at work. While this might be an incredibly important part of their work, it’s not always reflected in their title.
“I looked after the corporate social responsibilities as part of my last [in-house] HR role,” says Thomas. “It gave me exposure to all sorts of interesting things, but I didn’t go around saying I was the ‘General Manager of Human Resources and Corporate and Social Responsibility.”
Job titles can also reinforce unhelpful hierarchical barriers, which can block innovation.
“[Sometimes] when you reinforce hierarchy there’s less willingness to have conversations because the executive team might be seen as intimidating, for example,” says Thomas.
“Executives have a long way to go in terms of demystifying this ‘me versus them’ [mentality] because it often plays out in the workforce [around] projects or big changes.”
Are we actually talking about culture?
Title or no title, both Oorschot and Thomas agree that the heart of this discussion is around culture.
So if an organisation is ditching job titles in a bid to eliminate egos, there are bigger issues at play.
“If you’ve got a really good, humming workforce, all the way from the top down to bottom, ego shouldn’t come into it,” says Thomas.
“Sometimes titles are just created to placate people because they think it’s going to be received differently in the external market.” – Matthew Thomas, Director, Xformation consulting.
Oorschot agrees. “If leadership is on track and they’re doing the right thing, they could call me Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck, it wouldn’t matter because they’re setting the scene to say that everyone is important and contributes, no matter their level.”
If an organisation’s culture is one that tells people to stay in their box, their employees are going to hold back.
“[You need a] culture that encourages people to take informed risks and learn new things – that’s where people can thrive,” she says.
The future of job titles
While we’re unlikely to operate without job titles in the near future, Oorschot and Thomas have some ideas for how we could elevate our approach to both titles and position descriptions.
- Job titles could sit in the background, such as on employment contracts, but might not be public facing or determinative of the type of work employees take on, says Thomas.
- Salaries could be tied to bands, rather than positions, says Oorschot, as is currently done in the public sector. This means people still have opportunities to progress based on their skills, but their pay increase doesn’t need to be attached to a hierarchical job title that requires them to step into a managerial role
- When building teams around projects, ditch the hierarchy. Adopt an agile mindset, says Thomas, where “everyone is a contributor bringing their unique skills and mindsets… with one shared purpose in mind.”
HR could play a bigger role in helping leaders better understand the skills and capabilities of their people when pulling a team together because, in Thomas’s experience, “leaders aren’t currently investing enough time in this”.
- Virtual and hybrid environments could make job titles even less relevant, Thomas suggests. “Work has to be done differently now, so it’s an opportunity to ask, ‘What haven’t we tried? What have we always done but could do differently? In a remote environment, we’re much more focused on the experience and working together, and titles don’t really bode well with that.”
- Placing more prestige on skills rather than titles needs to be supported by robust performance management, reward systems and career goals, says Oorschot “For your high performers, you should be growing their inherent capabilities over and above their current job title.”
Even though there are some organisations out there axing job titles or redefining how they articulate skills and responsibilities, Thomas says in order for this to penetrate deeper, others have to adopt it too. And we’re probably a while away from that happening
“The only way you affect change is by lots of people changing.”
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