All in a title: defining jobs or pandering to egos

“You get these inflated titles that don’t explain much but make the person sound more important than they are,” says Dublin-based organisational psychologist Sean Ruth.

“You get these inflated titles that don’t explain much but make the person sound more important than they are,” says Dublin-based organisational psychologist Sean Ruth.

It used to be so simple. Job titles emerged as a way to let us know what sort of work people did. The benefit was that we knew who to turn to when we wanted something done. You want to increase sales? Talk to Joe, the sales rep. Want to find out how much you’ve spent on pens over the last month? Chat with Mary the accountant.

Over time, however, job titles have become badges of honour and of power. They highlight someone’s standing within an organisation, but can also often serve as a way to humour employees who crave recognition without necessarily paying them more.

Increasingly, job titles become so opaque and pretentious that rather than letting us know what someone does for a living, they do the opposite. From modality managers (nurses) and beverage dissemination officers (bartenders) to wet leisure assistants (lifeguards), it seems as though titles are no longer as helpful as they once were.

Chief visionary The chief visionary officers and vice-presidents for downstream B2B contracts and infrastructure operations among us may disagree, but a recent call to banish job titles, particularly in SMEs, was heralded in some quarters as a good commonsense idea.

The suggestion was made by Jenny Biggam, co-founder of The 7 Stars, a media planning agency, which was recently ranked the third best small company to work for in the UK by The Sunday Times.

Ms Biggam said that job titles can restrict people in terms of what they do and stop them from being more creative. She also said that employees often spend valuable time competing against each other to win the most prestigious title instead of working for the benefit of the organisation as a whole.

This isn’t the first time there’s been a call to banish job titles. While they may be beloved by staff, many experts say they are severely limiting. As Dublin-based organisational psychologist and consultant Sean Ruth sees it, the world would keep turning if titles became a thing of the past.

“There certainly wouldn’t be a state of anarchy if a company got rid of titles across the board provided that the organisation was clear about what work needed to be done and who was going to do it. As long as there is clarity around what tasks need to be completed, then job titles are not that important,” he said.

Mr Ruth notes the success of Semco, one of Brazil’s most famous companies, whose owner Ricardo Semler took a radical approach to management that included ditching job titles and allowing employees to set their own salaries.

“The company had a policy of not having job titles and staff were free to call themselves anything they liked as long as they understood that it did not mean anything inside the firm. This was just one of a number of measures introduced by Semco, but one which proved extremely successful at the time despite going against the rules of the day,” said Ruth.

In singling out SMEs, Ms Biggam said that they in particular have a better opportunity to get rid of many of the corporate ways of thinking that can bog down companies. However, it seems that her views have not gone down well with organisations supporting small and medium-sized enterprises in Ireland.

“People working in SMEs often do considerably more than their jobs titles would suggest. Many owner-managers that we know often do everything from HR to finance and even IT because they have to be on top of things,” said Patricia Callan, director of the Small Firms Association (SFA).

“There’s always a need for job titles but, usually in smaller companies, they are often broader and encompass more than in larger ones, where there is the option of more specialisation.”

Ms Callan’s counterpart at Irish Small and Medium Enterprise (ISME), chief executive Mark Fielding, was also somewhat dismissive of the suggestion to do away with job titles.

“It never ceases to amaze me how big business gurus can suddenly have an epiphany and then proceed to condescendingly teach small and medium business people what they (the SMEs) already know and practice . . . so when I read another guru advocating abolishing job titles, I can only smile,” he said.

“In a small business, all the titles are rolled into one person, the owner. As the enterprise grows from a one woman and her dog enterprise to something slightly larger, then roles and responsibilities are initially divided and names or titles are secondary and unimportant. Flexibility and versatility is key and no one has the luxury of being ‘boxed in’ by their title,” Mr Fielding added.

Both sides Dr Finian Buckley, a senior lecturer in organisational psychology at DCU Business School, can see both sides to the argument.

“We would say to SMEs coming to us that’s there’s nothing to be lost from defining roles but plenty to be lost by not doing it. If someone doesn’t know what their job is, then it is very difficult for them to deliver on a growth strategy because they’re not going to be clear about what exactly it is they should be doing and what their goals are,” he said.

“But there is a degree of truth to the argument that job titles can be limiting. The energy and flexibility that you get from new start-ups in particular where everybody is digging in and there’s plenty of passion and excitement can sometimes be missing in organisations in which roles are clearly defined and rigid,” Dr Buckley added.

There is of course an argument that job titles are a motivational tool in themselves. Many companies have tried to keep employees on board by offering them promotions that consist of little more than a better title. Indeed, some experts believe this is to blame for the rise of pretentious titles in many large corporations.

“There’s an awful lot of gloss put on things these days and some of the titles that people have are purely to boost egos. A lot of the time, the titles aren’t there to clarify things, but to make it more difficult to understand their role,” said Mr Ruth.

“Rather than have a descriptive title that’s accurate, you get these inflated titles that don’t explain much but make the person sound more important than they are,” he added.

Some experts warn that organisations that think they can get away with offering a better job title as a promotion without providing other incentives, may be seriously misguided.

“In an SME, titles are certainly not a motivating factor. Try to ‘promote’ someone without financially rewarding him or her in a small business and you will be told what to do with your ‘promotion’. However, giving someone more responsibility can be a real motivating factor, as long as it’s recognised,” said Mr Fielding.

Dr Buckley also warns against trying to pull the wool over employees’ eyes with pretentious-sounding titles, even though some staff members might get a kick out of it.

“For some people, a title may mean a lot to them. Those motivated by an external reward system find it important that their position is recognised by others and that is a reward in itself,” he said. “It’s a dangerous line for organisations to take because many employees have an expectation that consists of more than just titles.

“They want challenging work that is intrinsically worthwhile so woe betide the employer that thinks they can motivate staff simply by having a hierarchy of titles in place,” he added.

Previously published in The Irish Times.


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