Tips & Resources

What’s in a Name?: The Importance of Job Titles

I once worked for a company in which one of a key employee had the official title of “Manager of First Impressions.” Sounds cool, don’t you think? In actuality, she occupied the combined positions of receptionist and administrative assistant.

The extinction of the use of “secretary” in favor of “administrative assistant” also exemplifies the importance of a job title. In the 1980s, women seeking to rise through corporate ranks turned “secretary” into a four-letter word. “Administrative assistant” sounded more important. Executives knew better and, soon, so did the people—mostly women—who were hired into those positions. The work and the level (or lack) of respect remained the same.

Today we recognize, even if we don’t readily admit it, that job titles matter.

In her article “How Important Is Your Job Title?” Career coach Ashley Stahl relates the anecdote of a job seeker who, in an effort to be refreshingly original, referred to his current position as “sales rockstar.” The term fit no predefined corporate description and set her client up for unreasonable and conflicting expectations of hiring managers and potential employers. She adds: 

Using the word rockstar also implies a lack of structure. As much as new approaches may be appreciated, there are still corporate policies to follow. Finally and maybe most importantly, a more traditional hiring manager may think a sales rockstar is not taking the process seriously based on the title.

Her point is that the title assigned to you or the title you proclaim should meet the preconceptions of what it is you do. Your job title should imply the type of work and the level of skill. To illustrate that point, Stahl offers the following example: “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?”

Consequences of incorrect titles

The Balance Careers affirms the supposition that your job title defines you and warns of the consequences:

Not getting the correct job title appropriate to your position, duties, authority, and achievements can undermine your standing both inside your company and with key outsiders such as clients. Additionally, not getting the job title that you are due can hinder your pursuit of future career opportunities, both inside your current firm and as a potential outside hire by other employers. You probably will be seen unfairly as someone who actually is at a lower level of achievement than the one you have attained.

A company that shifts responsibility and authority onto an employee without a commensurate shift in job title does that employee a disservice, even it if comes with a raise in salary. It devalues that employee’s contribution to the business both internally and with future employers.

If you receive a promotion and the promise of a more elevated job title, The Balance Careers cautions you to verify that the company’s human resources department record that promotion in its records. Recording that change in corporate status in HR department records not only qualifies the promoted employee for enhanced benefits and increased salary, but also resists the possible machinations of managers who may renege on verbal promises of such promotions.

Title envy

As much as we like to claim an egalitarian society, human society remains hierarchical, especially within the corporate setting. Fast Company cites a study by Pearl Meyer & Partners that confirms job titles “affect everything from your level of mental exhaustion to your identity.” According to the results of the 2014 study, “80% of companies surveyed use job titles to accurately reflect the corporate hierarchy and more than 92% use them to define an employee’s role. However, only 37% use them to attract prospective employees.”

In plain words, we often define ourselves by our job titles. Those titles also indicate both corporate and social rank with a supposedly egalitarian society. In efforts to create more lateral structures, some corporations allow employees to determine their own titles. Studies show that such freedom leads to less job stress and more job satisfaction, but the practice serves as a double-edged sword.

We all want to raise our social and corporate status, increasing the likelihood of claiming higher level titles than would otherwise be assigned in a standard corporate structure. Someone who gives himself an impressive-sounding title may inspire resentment or envy. Coworkers may wonder whether that person was actually promoted or whether that person really does what the title implies.

 Negotiate your job title

Because the importance of job titles cannot be denied, savvy job seekers negotiate their job titles along with salaries and benefits. Job titles are about perception. The power of a job title lies not necessarily with the actual authority and responsibility it carries within the company, but oftentimes with the perceived value outside the company. Especially when searching for new employment, the last job title held contributes to or detracts from the job seeker’s personal brand.

The author of “Job Titles ARE Important” responds to hiring managers who downplay the importance of a job title with “If it’s not important then why won’t you give me the job title I’m requesting? If job titles are as inconsequential as you are telling me, then it should be no problem to give me the job title I’m requesting.” This, of course, flusters those hiring managers who must then admit they lied about the unimportance of job titles or proceed with negotiation of the job title. The article’s author notes that employers who decline to negotiate job titles distrust their employees because they want to trap them into the job and undermine their personal power.

Companies with rigid hierarchies and chains of command place great emphasis on job titles. They use titles to keep employees firmly in their assigned places with the higher level titles claimed—and too frequently with the attendant power abused—by egotists in management. Toxic office politics flourish in in this environment.

Titles also relate to salaries. In a company with a rigid hierarchy and salary structure, the title assigned determines the salary earned, regardless of performance or accomplishment. The same goes for authority. There’s no give-and-take, and the spirit of teamwork withers.

An impressive title, even in a company with a loose or lateral corporate structure, imbues the holder with power and authority outside the office walls. It commands greater respect and consideration from those reviewing your resume, like hiring managers who really do pay attention to applicants’ job titles.

Enhance your personal brand

Companies that value their employees empower them. When titles reflect the roles and responsibilities of the employees, people acquire a sense of accomplishment and authority: this is what they do and what they do informs who they are. The right title supports the person’s identity and may even inspire the competitive nature necessary to rise among the ranks and improve his or her social and corporate standing.

The Muse advocates for enhancing your personal brand by asking for a better job title. Newly created roles within a company tend to be more susceptible to title manipulation that more accurately describes the role or work performed. Human resources advocates suggest researching industry norms for titles and making requests for new titles in a thoughtful manner. A request for a title that undermines or diminishes your supervisor’s position will not only be denied, it will offend and threaten.

When arguing for a new title to boost the marketing and perception of your personal brand—i.e., your identity—make sure to couch the request in terms of benefiting your employer. The title you bear affects interactions with clients: people want to deal with those who have the authority to get things done, not peons at the bottom of the corporate ladder. That’s why anyone calling a customer service line is advised to request to speak with the customer service representative’s supervisor. Let’s face it, the front lines of business are generally staffed by the lowest level, lowest wage employees.

William Shakespeare may have done society a grave disservice when he wrote “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” in his play Romeo and Juliet. Names and titles really do matter. Anyone who tells you differently lies.