10 Rules For Good Job Titles

By | March 19, 2012

Do job titles matter?  They certainly can cause a lot of heat and fuss but not much light when under discussion.

Let’s begin with some context.

Job titles have three audiences, the external market-place, inside the organisation and the individual’s personal networks.

The External Market Place

Here fancy job titles can be useful for opening doors and gaining early credibility. However, they quickly become irrelevant when the customer/supplier/partner has been dealing with you for a while. Real credibility comes from being effective and professional, and crucially, being able to make/take decisions without referral.  Giving inexperienced people senior job titles can expose them if they don’t have the authority implied by the title.

Inside The Organisation

This is purely cultural. Some organisations will have a carefully calibrated career path designated like markers on a trail identifying  progress. Starting with junior or assistant, moving to the role without prefix (although its common that this level is missed out completely, the prefix being everything), to senior, to head of. The Managerial route goes from Team Leader (the word leader only ever being used when you don’t wish to pay a management salary for the role being performed), to Manager, to Director. Director has its own sub category of nuance – role behind implies there can be more than one;  Director – Creative. Role in front implies there  might only be one – Creative Director.  Associate or Executive is another meaningless Director variation that is given cultural import.

There is no correlation we can find that shows the more sophisticated and ‘levelled’ the job title taxonomy the more it improves performance. We would suggest the opposite.  Job title incontinence is a good proxy for extensive political gaming of the system.  Also this hierarchical use of Job titles is about putting people in their place, being reminiscent of the old military line of respecting the rank, not necessarily the person.

The Person’s Personal Networks

Here job titles are important, in so far as they help people form their work identity.  If given a promotion they will use the job title change  as  shorthand for transmitting significance. All the better if the friend or partner understands the territory like if you’ve just moved from Divisional MD to MD. Tip: usually the shorter the job title the more clearer the role.

What is important to understand here is that the Organisational and Personal feed each other. If the organisation obsesses about job titles then is breeds/attracts people who also obsess. Some industries are enmeshed by this, where people will move for a job title that makes sense amongst their peers.

The Rules for Putting Job Titles In Their Rightful Place.

  1. Have as few as possible. Our world record is 1000 employees with 490 job titles, where in one department there was a Temporary Administrator and a Temporary Relief Administrator!   This company is no longer in business.
  2. Have broad pay scales, people shouldn’t need to get a Job title change to get more money.
  3. Keep Job titles off everything except legal stuff, email footers, and business cards. No  desk, door or car park plates. Or internal telephone directories.
  4. Allow people some latitude is choosing a job title. The ego maniacs soon reveal themselves and self-control clicks in.
  5. Make it explicit company policy that pay is not connected to job title but to role contribution and business impact.
  6. Get rid of one-to-one reporting, this breeds job title inflation.
  7. Don’t use them as a substitute for career progression. Giving someone the title Senior and another £500pa simply designs latent paralysis into the organisation.  Work harder at developing real career development strategies.
  8. Avoid prefixes where possible.
  9. Anybody with Manager is their title should not be expected to be chased up, reminded of deadlines, or generally nurse maided.
  10. Focus on empowerment and devolved responsibility not status signifiers derived from position.

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