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The Superbowl of Title Inflation

Happy Superbowl Sunday! Although I much prefer to watch the other football, I can never resist tuning in for the Superbowl entertainment. This year, pop star Alicia Keys will be performing the US national anthem. One assumes that this required time away from her other role, that of newly appointed  “Global Creative Director” for Blackberry (formerly known as RIM, and formerly a Canadian technology success story).  Announced this week, Ms. Keys’ impressive new position got me thinking about a mysterious organizational phenomenon: ‘title inflation’.

A Brief History of Title Inflation

Ostentatious titles have come in and out and back in to fashion since the 90’s, and it certainly feels like they’re on an upswing recently. Technology companies have traditionally been the biggest offenders- Google is infamous for allowing outlandish and quirky job titles (the legendary example being ‘Intergalactic Federation King Almighty and Commander of the Universe’). But RIM is not especially prone to whimsy, and by comparison Ms. Keys’ title seems fairly mundane…except that it isn’t really. I have no doubt that Alicia Keys is a creative powerhouse- but by giving her a title that exaggerates the level of input that she will realistically have into the design of a piece of telecom hardware, Blackberry is definitely engaging in title inflation.

But Tell Us Why, Overlord of Employee Taxonomy!

So what motivates organizations to engage in title inflation? I’ve read a variety of reasonable explanations. Inflated titles might:

  • be used as bargaining chips to onboard big-name talent (ahem, ahem)
  • reflect the increasing complexity of individual work roles
  • be required to differentiate technical positions related to rapidly evolving technology
  • increase the appeal of an otherwise undesirable job
  • be symptomatic of an organizations’ status-obsessed culture
  • serve as cheap alternatives to compensation increases as a means of retaining talent
  • make an organization sound more exclusive, ‘cutting edge’ or progressive
  • be used to differentiate roles in flatter organizations
  • be a symptom of the ‘rise of specialists’

Business Cards are Cheaper Than Raises

In one organization I worked for, titles seemed to be handed out in lieu of more money (which was always in short supply when it came to compensating employees).  Young, ambitious professionals were thrilled to be given a new title (ostensibly to recognize their hard work and potential), but it didn’t take long before the reality sunk in. Generally their fancy new title was meant to justify an increased workload and more hours…without the pay cheque to match.

Muddy the Waters

When I worked for a national food processing company, I had the arduous task of recruiting for one of the most hard-to-fill roles in the entire organization: A.I. Technician. An integral role for our business, the A.I. Crew was plagued with high turnover, and lengthy time to fill. I’d interview scores of people who were eager for employment, only to reach that critical moment in the interview in which the person across the table from me asked “So what exactly would I be doing?” Trust me when I say that there is no easy way to tell a man that you’d like to hire him to collect turkey semen, and inseminate female turkeys. That’s right, A.I. stands for Artificial Insemination. You see, humans have bred the modern-day turkey to maximize meat-yield, and this physically prevents them from reproducing the traditional way; hence the need for human intervention. The use of a clinical title almost certainly increased the number of applicants I had for these roles, and likely made it easier for employees to answer the dreaded ‘How’s work going?” question over turkey dinner with the in-laws at Christmas…but it didn’t change the day-to-day reality of the work.

Too Cool for School

These days, some of the more interesting titles I come across seem to reflect an organization’s desire to sound cutting-edge and exclusive. Last week I was delighted to meet a ‘Director of Spirits’- not a ghost whisperer, as you might guess, but someone in charge of developing innovative cocktail offerings for an entertainment and hospitality chain. My brother, who works in the technology sector, previously held the esoteric-sounding role of ‘Program Manager, Cloud Computing and Virtual Technology’.

If you feel left out, you can avail yourself of an excellent online tool: the Bullshit Job Title Generator to create a suitably pompous moniker that you can propose to your boss. Some of my favorites so far include:

  • Chief Interactions Orchestrator
  • Dynamic Identity Engineer
  • Human Solutions Agent

Why Should We Care?

Aside from the fact that inflated titles are annoying to those of us who don’t have one, I’d argue that their use erodes the sense of fair play and transparency that most employees desire in the workplace. Organizations who dole out inflated titles have the potential to put a spotlight on the nuances of individual status and power, rather than shared goals- and this can have real consequences for organizational culture and effectiveness.

And when employees with inflated titles leave their organization, they may struggle to land a similarly-titled role, given the level of autonomy and accountability their roles actually entailed.

Finally, in providing titles instead of raises, organizations will inevitably end up top-heavy, with too many queens and not enough worker bees. And then how are you going to tell the Senior Captain of Office Supplies that they have fill out their own expense reports?

Image credit The B’s via Flickr Creative Commons

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Love the A. I. job….what a chuckle. I went from a bank to healthcare. Everyone knows the joke about banks and title inflation…its true. And yes, when I moved to healthcare, they were concerned that I would be unhappy without the title I had in banking as healthcare titled a very limited number of officers.

    What was interesting is that banking set up titled individuals as officers of the company with privileges of purchasing and signing on behalf of the company. It certain made things convenient, and there was a sense of equality in the titling process. In healthcare, purchasing privileges were retained at the officer level, and you could tell the pecking order of the business units and staff groups by what level of officer was their senior leader.

    While I always thought the proliferation of titles in banking silly, the empowerment that accompanied the titles wasn’t, nor was the equality with which titles were bestowed. While I didn’t give a hoot about the title when I moved to healthcare, the process foretold a lack of trust in leadership that directors had to have signature from a VP to purchase equipment or programs that were approved already in a budget system.

    I think titles are examples of artifacts in Schein’s culture model, but it isn’t as simple as looking at the titles to see what they say about the culture. Titles represent something a little deeper, in terms of how the organization views empowerment. The disclaimer here is that this only represents two banks and one healthcare system….

    February 4, 2013
  2. Thanks for your comments Carol. I really like how you put this: “Titles represent something a little deeper, in terms of how the organization views empowerment”. I think you’re right- that titles can be manifestations of underlying beliefs organizations hold about whether influence and authority are mostly earned through relationship building and expertise, or bestowed through promotion or favor from ‘the senior powers that be’ (i.e. legitimate power). That is a very fundamental difference with far-reaching consequences. Your example represents what some might perceive to be a subtle difference between two organizations, but clearly had deeper meaning and effect.

    February 5, 2013
  3. I once had to use “HR Officer” while the role was for the HR Manager, when I was onboarded, just so as to avoid ruffling the feathers of the incumbents (who were staff level employees who had to stand in for the role I was being hired for).

    They’re gone now, and I just call functional leads “Leads” no matter whether they’re in supervisory or managerial job/salary grades.

    February 28, 2013

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  1. Best of the HR blogs February 2013: 20 great HR blog posts from February 2013 (XpertHR - Employment Intelligence)

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