Are Job Titles Important?

For Many People, Their Job Title Reflects Their Identity.

Most organizations that I have worked with over my consulting career use job titles simply to reflect the job responsibilities for a certain position. Not a lot of thought is given to how a job title can motivate or de-motivate an employee, how to use job titles as a recruiting tool, doing away with job titles completely, or letting employees determine their own job title. Determining job titles is typically the job of Human Resources professionals who are skilled at writing job descriptions and the like.

When I first got into the consulting business, I was assigned to a client for a one-year project. That was the typical entry level assignment. My title was project manager. It seemed to make sense to me. My job was to manage a client project. I reported to a senior project manager, who had more years of experience than I did, oversaw several client projects, and participated in sales calls. Our company felt that adding the term “senior” to the title added credibility when dealing with clients. I agreed with that and looked forward to the day when I would get that title. Certainly, I looked forward to more pay and stature that came with a senior title, but just having the title alone was a bit of a motivator for me.

If you have some influence over how job titles are determined in your organization, you might give some thought to a few things:

People identify with their job title. I remember the day I got my first business card. It said “financial analyst.” I was very proud to give one to my mother and my grandmother. That title said that I had arrived and was important. Some employees see their job title as a reflection of them as a person. I talk to a lot of people on airplanes. Most of them come across very strongly when they tell me they are a manager, technical advisor, senior engineer or the like. The job title needs to reflect the job itself, but see if you can add a little stature to the title also, so people can brag a bit.

Titles can affect credibility. If you have some employees that deal with customers, you want to make sure they have a title that tells the customers that the employees are knowledgeable in that area. The customers will be more willing to listen to credible employees. The same holds true for other departments. The more important the title seems to be, the greater the probability that other employees will cooperate and communicate with your people. This may not make a huge difference in cross-functional collaboration, but it may help or hinder it.

Job titles can help someone get a better job. Having someone leave and go to work elsewhere is probably not your first choice as a leader. Especially if that employee has a lot of potential to move up in your organization. I am not saying that it is your responsibility to get your employees better jobs. I am saying that, if you are concerned about the growth of the whole individual, understand that your people may be seeing greener pastures elsewhere and a bigger title may help them get there.

Strong titles can help your hiring efforts. When a candidate is looking for a new position, before they read a job description, they see a job title. A strong job title may get someone to respond to your job ad who would not respond with a weaker job title. A good candidate will obviously make their job choice based on a lot of other factors, but someone who is on the fence may be swayed by a strong job title.

Beware of title inflation. The banking industry is filled with vice presidents. There are a lot of reasons for someone who handles our money to have a powerful title. Unfortunately, that particular title has become overused in banking, and thus has lost its power. Try to dole out senior-level titles sparingly, using true increases in job scope and whether the position manages people or not as a determinant for a senior-level title.

Remember that some people see job titles as reflections of self-worth, salary, knowledge, experience and success. If you are in a situation to influence job title creation, take those things into consideration.

Steve Schumacher is a management consultant, trainer and public speaker with more than 25 years of experience in numerous industries throughout North America, including aggregates operations. He can be reached at [email protected].

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