The European Commission has, at the time of writing, a “team” of 28 Commissioners. One of them has the title of President, and no less than seven of the others have been bestowed with the title of Vice-President. (Seven Vice‑Presidents?) And then, there is the European Parliament with its own President and a European Council also with its own President. It’s no wonder the European Union has trouble making decisions. It has as many heads as the Hydra.
Inflation is one of the biggest problems with job titles. Typical bureaucratic organizations are infested with Presidents, Chiefs, Seniors, Executives, Vices, and Directors. Employees in a hierarchy are always comparing themselves with the worst performers on the next higher level. As a result, there is a strong temptation for workers to demand better sounding titles, and for managers to give them. Some say fancy job titles are the easiest way to please employees and they cost nothing. The idea is, “If it makes people feel better, let them feel better.” [Horowitz, “Titles and Promotions”]
However, I agree with others who say the glamorization of job titles definitely comes with a cost. A ladder of titles reinforces the corporate hierarchy, which can seriously hurt innovation in the long term. [Haden, “Why There Are No Job Titles at My Company”] What you want is for the best ideas to grow from the bottom of the organization, perhaps offered by the Director of First Impressions (or Receptionist), the Underwater Ceramic Technician (or Dishwasher), and the Media Publications Administrator (or Paperboy). [BBC, “25 of Readers’ Inflated Job Titles”]
It hardly needs pointing out that the glamorization of titles can backfire. The reputations of both workers and organizations can be hurt by the devaluation and dilution of titles. (I mean, seriously, seven Vice-Presidents among 28 Commissioners?) Creative names can also cause a problem for people’s future careers. Hiring managers and HR professionals usually search for familiar titles. If the official job title of your previous job was “Code Ninja” instead of “Software Developer”, you might find it harder to be discovered by recruiters through applicant tracking systems.
A second problem with job titles is that they have a tendency to pigeon-hole people into narrow job descriptions. In one big organization where I worked, many years ago, it didn’t matter at all that I had talents for writing, speaking, teaching, and organizing. All that mattered to the company was the part of me that could be squeezed neatly into the open position of .NET Software Developer. The large chunks of me that didn’t exactly fit into the available slot begged for attention and cultivation, but were diligently ignored.
A third problem with job titles is that there is seldom any standardization of what they mean. An interaction designer in one company could be responsible for very different things compared to an interaction designer in another company just around the corner. The CEO of Happy Melly can hardly be compared with the CEO of Google. And, despite the existence of an international Project Management Institute (PMI), an extensive body of knowledge (PMBoK), and an international project management method (PRINCE2), several project managers have told me they have no idea what people with the title of Project Manager are doing in other organizations.
A fourth problem is the prejudice that often goes hand-in-hand with job titles. The CEO is usually male, while the Office Manager is expected to be female. The Receptionist is white and the Janitor is black. The Board Member is old, and the Trainee is young. The Public Speaker is an extrovert, and the Book Writer is an introvert. (The Vice-Presidents in the European Commission are, I suspect, overpaid and over-titled.)
Many job titles, or at least the ones that come with assumptions, have a tendency to put people in boxes. I think it is time we reconsider our use of titles.
Jurgen Appelo is Europe’s most popular leadership author, listed on Inc.com’s Top 50 Management Experts and 100 Great Leadership Speakers. His latest book Management 3.0 #Workout, full of concrete games, tools, and practices, is available as a FREE pdf, and in paperback, Kindle and ePub versions. Get your copy here: https://www.management30.com/workout
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BBC. “25 of Readers’ Inflated Job Titles” <https://bbc.in/1eHFLjY> BBC News Magazine, 1 August 2012. Web.
Haden, Jeff. “Why There Are No Job Titles at My Company” <https://bit.ly/182becv> Inc., October 2013. Print.
Horowitz, Ben. “Titles and Promotions” <https://bit.ly/1gFPUOK> Ben’s Blog, 17 March 2011. Web.