At any networking event, there’s always a flurry of handshakes—pre-COVID-19 period, of course—and name card exchanges. Today, we always expect the same things on the name card, regardless of the design: the person’s name, job title, and contact information. Society today mandates that we at least, have a job title that succinctly describes what we do and where we are in the company.
Though there has been some innovation in the job title naming conventions, we haven’t really strayed away from its main purpose. An example would include how customer service associates—an innately mechanical term—were transformed to customer happiness heroes, to suggest that these people are championing customer satisfaction within the company. Human resources can be called people operations, but the function of the department will change towards a people-first mindset.
Job titles have now become a contentious issue. For some recruiters, job titles can affect the next job that you’re going to get, and thus, place emphasis on getting your job titles right (or proposing a better one to your current boss). Career experts also believe that job titles are important for not just your hiring managers, but also for your colleagues and your clients as well.
The fact is people pay a lot of attention to titles and that stems from human nature. It is a form of conscious labelling, given by another human being based on your experience and your supposed value to the organization that you’re in. It is a human faculty to grapple things that are complex or deep in nature, similar to how we label colours and race. It is how we catalogue information to process in our minds, and generally, such labelling is inherently neutral.
Yet, job titles have become a relatively new set of problems that workers face today. Although hiring managers would definitely love to see a great job title that helps them make their hiring decision, most recruiters would argue that the job title isn’t as important as many people think. A contrarian perspective would be that the job title doesn’t matter as much as what you actually did when you were helming the role.
The power and perception of job titles have been overblown for many years now. Unfortunately, many of the connotations that the job title bring are still prevalent today, even if we are to defocus from it. If we were to find a senior leader in an organization, we are most likely drawn to anyone with a “Director”—save the other legal terms such as executive directors, non-executive directors—or a “Chief” in their job title.
“Being a leader is like being a lady. If you have to remind people you are, you aren’t.”—Margaret Thatcher
Yet, in the field of leadership, job titles don’t matter. A slightly contentious quote by Margaret Thatcher says it well: “Being a leader is like being a lady. If you have to remind people you are, you aren’t.” Most people can probably relate to this: a manager that doesn’t act like a leader, but a new employee bearing a strong suit of leadership qualities. Such people do exist, and it reflects badly on the job title—though context matters in this case, since the hierarchical part of the job title usually implies the amount of experience this person has in the industry.
Hence, off-the-wall titles have come up to address this issue to make job titles a bit more “expressive”, but it usually takes a solid, well-aligned corporate culture to pull it. No one is going to fool anyone with a title like “marketing ninja” or “SEO guru” until their skill is proven to be fitting.
In the job title world, how can there be sweeping change? What can be enacted such that people have job titles that it makes complete sense when we reconcile it with the person’s expertise?
A good case study would be social media management startup Buffer, a fully-distributed team that is famous for its “open policy”.
The transparency at Buffer is unprecedented in society. Transparency has often been a focus, but not a lot of companies can pull it off. For the most part, huge conglomerates will find it difficult to execute while trying to protect the interests of other people. Alas, if anyone with decision-making prowess is uninterested in making things transparent, then the many problems that can be solved with such an approach will always remain.
Buffer revolutionized the way they deal with transparency; they not just share their financial numbers to the public, but also how much equity is distributed and how much everyone is being paid. In this open policy, they took a novel, gamified approach with the way they look at job titles.
For some, job titles mean a lot. At Buffer, job titles are strictly front-facing and function-descriptive. If you’re a developer, you’re a “Developer”, but since you’re in the industry in 5 years and your experience commands seniority, you will be called a “Senior Developer”.
In enormous corporates, you’d not just have one developer, but multiple teams of developers across different functions. Here’s the problem: you can’t possibly call ten of the developers in a team “Senior Developer” and not have any form of dichotomy to help others differentiate all of them. Who’s the most senior? Who is more proficient in a certain programming language? Who has more project management experience?
At Buffer, they introduced a multi-step framework that has a semblance of gamification. Similar to how we “level up” in a game, Buffer introduced ‘steps’, which is meant to describe how far in a certain person is in their position. You can see it in effect in the job salary board that Buffer has on Google Sheets, where some customer happiness associates and developers have various steps despite helming the same title.
Such an idea also means that implementation is difficult. It takes fairness and impartiality. The senior managers need to spend ample time in understanding what goes into work performance, and also keep tabs on whether the said employee is performing or not. Blind spots can also occur when the senior manager is not directly involved in a project (which means he/she is unable to accurately score an employee’s contribution).
This means that rubrics written to be intentionally flexible have to be established internally, and it takes more than just “performance reviews” (which often aren’t effective) to nail it down.
Yet, the benefit can be clearly seen. Each step is tied to a certain level of compensation and internally, it makes rewards equitable.
Companies need to start framing the way they label job titles along the lines of how Buffer did with theirs. Internally, job titles hold a lot of power in a conversation. It can often mean a proposal being rejected or an idea that has been fully developed vetoed out of the meeting room. It often implies a certain level of power a person has in the organization, which may or may not tally with the job title.
We all know a manager that isn’t as good of a leader, but a senior associate that displays amazing leadership qualities. To extend this logic, we can also talk about proficient senior developers that are so skilful that they deserve to be promoted, but are only held back because of their lack of leadership ability.
Essentially, the workplace becomes less equitable, and for today’s generation of workers, this problem will soon become another huge issue that will come up in Gallup’s surveys and studies.
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