Are Job Titles Still a Big Deal in the Modern Workplace?

businessman presentation Photo by Dreamstime.

A funny thing happened a couple of years ago – I went to go run my Mom’s business.

That, in and of itself, isn’t funny; the funny part took place during a five minute conversation before we (she) decided it was final that I was coming in to run the show.

Here’s how the conversation went:

Mom: So, what should we call you?

Me: Well, I don’t care, as long as the check clears.

Mom: Very funny. I’m the President and CEO.

Me: How about VP?

Mom: We already have a VP.

Me: How about COO?

Mom: We aren’t that big.

Me: How about Executive VP?

Mom: Perfect. You can have my office in the corner; be ready to take over in three months. (Four days later she left and I was the new Executive VP in charge.)

Why titles are important

Now, this was more than four days in the making. I had previously spent eight (8) years working at HRU, then 10 years working corporate recruiting and HR positions across a number of industries with some fantastic companies. So, I was groomed so-to-speak — plus the fact I can remember sitting on my Mom’s bed at night when I was a kid while she called candidates about positions she was recruiting for. You could say I was bred to do this job.

So – what about the title?

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I was reminded a couple of days ago when a good friend of mine got a new title, going from Sr. Manager to VP of Talent or something (all before she turned 30).

It reminded me of me. I had a goal (like most young ambitious people have) to be a VP before the age of 35. I was young enough, and naive enough, not to really care about what I was going to VP of – I just needed that title! That title would give me so many things:

  • Prestige
  • Honor
  • Responsibility
  • Credibility (I mean they just don’t give out VP titles to anyone, right? Right?…)
  • Perceived importance to the organization
  • Etc, etc., etc.

Why HR pros need to care about job titles

Ben Horowitz had a great article at Fortune recently – Titles and Promotions – where he theorizes titles are important because:

1. Employees want them — while you may plan to work at your company forever, at least some of your employees need to plan for life after your company. When your head of sales interviews for her next job, she won’t want to say that despite the fact that she ran a global sales force with hundreds of employees, her title was “Dude.”

2. Eventually, people need to know who is whom — As companies grow, everybody won’t know everybody else. Importantly, employees won’t know what each other do and whom they should work with to get their jobs done. Job titles provide an excellent short hand for describing roles in the company. In addition, customers and business partners can also make use of this short hand to figure out how to best work with your company.

Beyond these core reasons, employees will use titles to calibrate their value and compensation against their colleagues. If an employee with a title of Junior Engineer believes that she is a far better programmer than her counterpart with the title Senior Architect, this will indicate to her that she may be under paid and undervalued. Because titles will be used to calculate relative value, they must be managed carefully.”

So, do I think titles are important? No, I don’t; Yes, I do.

No, because I’ve learned now after almost 20 years in HR that titles are meaningless when it comes to who actually performs and gets the job done.

Yes, because like Ben says above, enough people care about them that as HR pros, we have to care.

Let’s face it; very few people have the internal fortitude and confidence to work without stripes. Most employees like to know who’s in charge and who is carrying the ”A” card in the decision making tree. Whether I like it or not, titles matter to many people for many reasons, and it’s our job in HR to figure out how to best utilize this tool for the benefit of our organizations.

But for the record, no matter what my title is, I still report to Mom!

This was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.

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