“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
— from Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
After reading that quote you could be forgiven for thinking Shakespeare had never even heard of Google algorithms, digital job boards and job search, long-term career development in a technology-driven world, corporate hierarchies or wacky job titles.
Actually, you’d be correct. If Shakespeare were alive today and in the hiring business, there’s little doubt he would take a different view and possibly write instead:
“What’s in a name? A Head of Creative
Named a Dream Alchemist smells like horse s**t.”
— from Recruiter and Jobseeker by William Shakespeare
Wow, he’s good. And right. The sad fact is that “Dream Alchemist” has been used as a job title for what should properly be the title “Head of Creative”. It’s hard to say how many sad endings (or non-starters) this has seen, but who’d bet on Leonardo DiCaprio starring in the movie?
Here’s the problem(s).
Self-Indulgence vs. Success
The crazy job title named above is, as stated, real. And in real terms it’s purely self-indulgent; an indicator of the brand type and company culture (perhaps). It’s so self-indulgent that, as pointed out in a previous article, it gives zero thought to the fact no jobseeker on earth would type it into a search bar when looking for the job it represents.
So there’s that.
How well your favorite search engine picks up on the broader context of the job description and renders it in results for the actual title search is another question. Many experienced professionals could well be embarrassed by the thought of having such a title applied to them – or having it take pride of place on their resume.
Let’s consider the following:
- Job titles should be helpful to those seeing and hearing them.
- There’s a time and a place for everything.
- Enforced jollity starts to grate on people after a while.
Aside from potentially stopping job posts being visible to many job seekers, the down-to-earth approach to job titles achieves two additional objectives:
- Instantly describe the area of expertise required.
- Instantly describe the hierarchical level within the department/company.
All good points, all lifted from a previous article linked above. So why not do a quick update and republish the older article? Because – as if you can’t guess – things have since become worse in a way that’s complicated enough to merit a new one.
Still, before we get into that…
Take Our Test
All the following job titles are real. They’ve all been proudly put out there by people who ought to have known better, but didn’t. We’ve already given you the answer to the first of them above, to help tune you in. Can you guess the regular titles for the others?
- Dream Alchemist
- Chief Chatter
- Wizard of Light Bulb Moments
- Part-Time Czar
- Grand Master of Underlings
Easy, right? (Answers at the bottom.)
The (Job Title) Inflation Situation
So here’s where it gets worse. Self-indulgence causes its own problems, pointed out in basic terms in the article so far. But it is what it is: transparently mindless and in direct conflict with logic — so the problems that wacky job titles cause in various areas of hiring are easy to pinpoint.
Job title inflation, however, is something else.
Economic inflation is on everybody’s minds right now: Will it turn into recession? If so, will we dodge the bullet in 2022 and see mild/wild recession in 2023? Are we on the verge of a massive collapse that could throw everything into chaos? Powerful questions with the usual “time will tell” answer plastered across them.
But the job title inflation question is very much one for today — we are, after all, still at an unemployment rate of 3.6%, near the half-century low achieved in 2020 — and The Great Resignation still looms large, with employee retention top of mind across most industries.
Job title inflation is a retention tool.
It all started before today’s problems kicked in, with startups solving their compensation limitations by handing out titles that gave a sense of achievement and importance. Some of the titles, as shown above, were sillier than others, but they were created primarily as a retention strategy – the low compensation public promotion and flash title.
However, any inflated job title that doesn’t sound like a joke is a unique problem.
Congratulations! Job hop to another company and it’ll look like a demotion. Or you’ll find yourself in a position you don’t have the qualifications or experience to actually do.
It also turns hiring into a time-consuming mine field for recruiters.
Hiring teams are placed in a spot where they are forced to look beyond job titles and into the actual experience of the individual. Anything about leading teams? Growing teams? Actually directing anything?
Still, who said hiring teams don’t love a challenge? (Answers on a postcard, please.)
For the companies indulging in job title inflation, there are many potential problems. Who gets these inflated titles and why? What do all the other employees make of this? How long have any of these people been with the company?
How do the team hierarchies function? Is somebody with a “director” title actually now the head of a specific team? Or across teams for specific projects? Or is that person actually still an individual contributor?
If so, is everybody that person reaches out to aware of this? Is the person with the new title aware of this? If not, how quickly can we assume a move from complimentary name-calling to total chaos?
The less silly inflated job titles are, the more serious these questions become.
Companies who find themselves living with chaos as a result of inflated job titles place themselves in a position where they have to backtrack, potentially losing outraged or humiliated employees into the bargain.
Did somebody mention retention?
Stopping Superficial Solutions
It’s difficult to believe that inflated job titles started out as anything other than a joke; a kind of brand extension across teams. It’s also hard to avoid the reality of what the practice has become for many companies and how badly it can backfire for both employers and employees.
So it needs to stop.
Any job titles should be questioned in terms of how the title functions within the hierarchy, and what experience and/or qualifications it requires. If it appears that employees are being handed out managerial or other high-level titles without objective justification, the potential toxicity of the move should be pointed out.
For example, if an employee is hired into an managerial position, or moved up into one, all employees should be notified about that change and what it means for them in terms of professional relationships and teamwork.
If that isn’t deemed necessary, there’s a problem.
If, by making it less desirable for one person to leave, a company makes it entirely desirable for others to leave, that is a massive fail. And the potential downsides of inflated job titles are so destructive for individuals, teams, and companies, you can guarantee the desired upside has much better ways of being achieved.
Possibly any other way.
Answers: 1. Head of Creative; 2.Call Center Manager; 3. Marketing Director; 4. Assistant Manager; 5. Deputy Manager. See complete list.
Pat Brien is the Senior Co-Director of Shakespearean Strategy for Starbound Success (and you’re not).