What’s In A Title?

Chuck Csizmar – CMC Compensation Group

I once faced a client situation where I was asked to uncover why a Senior Accountant (non-exempt) reported to an Accountant (exempt).  This same company used the title “supervisor” to describe individual contributor positions and it was not uncommon for Managers to report to Managers and Directors to report to Directors.

Given that these situations occurred in a large and presumably sophisticated company, one might ask – is there really a problem here?  What’s the big deal, and is anyone being harmed?  Advocates would say that offering an employee a special title is a harmless and inexpensive reward, one that doesn’t raise employer costs.  It also improves the morale of affected employees.

Where do these scenarios come from?

  • Managers grant esoteric titles to those for whom they have limited means of reward.  “They won’t let me give you the salary increase I think you deserve, but let’s change your title to xxxxx”.  Like greasing a squeaky wheel for a short term fix they want to do *something* to keep the employee quiet / motivated / not thinking of leaving.
  • Employees are given job opportunities (titles) where none should exist.  Have you experienced the long serving Secretary / Administrative Assistant promoted to the newly created role of Office Manager, all while performing the same job?
  • As a salve to employees a “special” title is used because somehow the position (usually clerical) is considered so different from other jobs that it needs to be specifically identified.  Special titles can also be seen as reflecting on the importance of the managers themselves.

In my experience it is usually those in management who consider themselves “above the fray” who do not see title inflation (puffery) as a problem.  Interestingly enough, that level of management can be severely put out if the same title giveaway happens within their hierarchical level.

At the risk of being called Mr. Gloom & Doom, let me explain the type of harvest that you can expect from planting these problem “seeds”.

  • Role clarity (job duties, business impact, decision-making, etc.) behind questionable titles will become blurred.  This in turn would generate more confusion as the company creates Senior Managers and Group or Area Directors and other in-between titles in the hierarchy to differentiate the “real” jobs from the inflated titles.
  • When attempting to determine the competitiveness of your positions the less accurate the title is in relation to the work performed, the more likely your analysis will be skewed.  Benchmarking unique, employee-specific and inflated titles will make a correct assessment of your competitiveness more difficult.  This could have real cost impact.
  • Those with inflated titles will expect whatever perks or privileges that normally accompany the title and their absence could cause difficulties.  It’s an awkward conversation when you tell an employee that the import of their new level in the organization is “title only”.
  • Inflated titles can be a detriment to incumbents as well, such as the “Director” who now only qualifies for a “Manager” title with a prospective employer.  These employees have limited opportunities outside your company because other employers would be reluctant to hire someone where the title is lateral or even backward to what they currently hold.  The result could be that mediocre performers remain with your company because they have no where else to go.
  • The natural extension of inflated titles is inflated grades / salary ranges, as the bogus “senior” position would be placed in a higher grade than the “intermediate” position, right?  This practice will gradually increase your fixed costs without a corresponding rise in either performance or capability.
  • Some employees legitimately find themselves in a dead end job, and granting them a cosmetic title as a salve doesn’t help anyone.  Lead or supervisory mail clerk?  Or the “supervisor” that no one reports to?
  • Employees do not like giving up these inappropriate titles.  Thus employee relations / morale issues will likely develop if you try to correct poor past practices.  You may have to develop creative “buy out” scenarios or grandfather employees.

If you are in a situation with inflated, redundant and confusing job titles, what steps can improve your lot?

  • Organize a Spring cleaning exercise:  start with the low hanging fruit by eliminating (deleting from your systems) all titles that are unoccupied.
  • To avoid backsliding you should accompany that initiative by implementing tighter procedural requirements necessary before a “new” title can be authorized.  While perhaps only a finger in the dike or closing the barn door after the horses have left, you must cut off the flow of new problems before you can effectively address the core issue of incumbents.
  • The company would need fewer job descriptions if the wording was more generalized.  Standardized titles would clear away much of the role responsibility confusion while clarifying an employee’s duties.

Especially in clerical positions, the general nature of duties for most positions (filing, record keeping, secretarial, forms processing, correspondence, etc) lends itself to standardization – which in turn makes it easier to move employees from position to position without having to “promote” someone when their title changes.

Bear in mind though, that title standardization makes more sense in a conference room than it does during an employee discussion.  A “Senior Depository Research Clerk” will always sound more important than a “Clerk III” or even “Senior Clerk”.

Companies try to reduce the number of titles whenever a new HRIS is established (that’s usually when the huge number of active titles becomes widely known).  Anyone who has been exposed to the process of implementing an HRIS (SAP, Peoplesoft, Oracle, etc.) will tell you that job title standardization is a key component of the project.

However there is always a degree of passive resistance when individual leaders realize that *their* area is being cleansed of superfluous / redundant / misleading titles.

Fewer titles can mean more role clarity in your organization, greater accuracy in assessing pay competitiveness, more control of labor costs and indeed higher morale as employees know where they stand and what they must do to succeed in your organization.

A final caution: be careful of setting up titles without occupants “in case we want to promote someone down the road.”   Guess what?  You will.

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9 responses to “What’s In A Title?

  1. David Marshall

    Good piece on job titles in general, but where was the international twist? The challenge faced by many companies is when the titles and grade structures at HQ do not match the titles and grade structure at the international offices. The hierarchy of individual contributor to supervisor to manager does not always flow in that same order outside the US. Not always a good fix if you try and manage a global grade and title structure.

  2. You raise a good point, David. While the prime point of the blog article is the incremental cost to any organization that allows title inflation, I could have expanded my comments to note distinctions in titling hierarchy between the US and other countries. In my overseas experience we allowed country-specific titling distinctions, and did not force the US model. However, benefits attributable to certain titles likewise became country-specific, so that (for example) a Director title in the UK carried more organizational weight that a Director title in the US.

    To my mind the critical element remains a global management effort to avoid non-functional titles that serve little organizational purpose but add to fixed costs.

  3. Chris Wien


    Thanks for your great article. Titles have inherent value to employees, thus they must be managed like any other corporate asset. You are quite correct about monitoring for title inflation because it leads to real fixed cost inflation.

    Absolute value:
    -Conveys Level of importance to company objectives
    -Psychic value for the employee, especially for start up companies that are strapped for cash rewards.
    -Status and credibility when visiting customers, especially important for sales reps who need to gain access to decision makers.

    Relative Value:
    In hierarchial organizations, titles are highly structured and tied to grade levels and salary ranges with little overlap. Non profits use the term Executive Director which may mean CEO job scope, but in Pharma, Executive Director is usually head of a business unit or section. So, job scope does not always match the title depending on the industry where it is applied.

    Titles are not generic across industries as VP in a bank carries much less responsibility than a corresponding title in a manufacturing company that is much more conservative in doling out executive titles.

  4. Pingback: PZL-104 Wilga » Blog Archive » Administrative, Library and Computing

    • This insert from the UK Library Association has illustrated the confusion of titles trying to describe who does what and whom is responsible for what. Can you imagine an organization where an Assistant Librarian is promoted to a Senior Assistant Librarian, then to a Principal Assistant Librarian and then ultimately (I hope!) to a Senior Principal Assistant Librarian? Each of these steps would have higher wages, of course.

  5. Do you have any recommendations on international HR titles that translate well across cultures? We are designing a new global HR position, and are trying to create a title. The job is generalist in nature: it will include compensation, benefits, immigration, and other issues as they arise. I’d love to hear your feedback on this! There was some concern that the term “generalist” wouldn’t translate well across countries.

  6. Some titles may hold different meaning elsewhere around the globe – as compared to its meaning in the US. So what would your management like to use for a global title? For example, in Europe a Director is usually a Company Director, not an inflated Manager as become a problem in many US organizations.

    The title Specialist carries a heavier meaning than the US, as does Administrator and even Coordinator.

    In my experience the title Generalist is commonly used for HR Employee Relations, vs. the role you described.

    It is also possible that titles is Asia or the Pacific Rim may also have distinctions we don’t think of in the US, but then you’d be dealing with Regional titles vs. Global.

    Hope this helps. Drop me a note offline if you’d like to discuss.

  7. Hi,

    I am an HR professional from India. I am constantly faced with the challenge of title standardization. In India, we use titles as HR Executive and Senior HR Executive but my U.S. counterpart mentioned to me that in U.S., Executive is used only for Senior Management. Can I have different titles only for U.S. employees or should I change the titles of Indian employees as well to make them consistent?

    • Natasha –

      It is very difficult to standardize titles globally. In my experience, global companies have an internal “consistent” title which is very generic, such as Analyst, Specialist, Manager, Director, etc. These are used for internal purposes, such as the global HRIS and global salary grading.

      In addition, there is a local “business card” title. This is how people are known in the local market and reflects the typical practice and local culture. For example, a company may have General Manager as a standard title for the top job in each country, but the local titles could be Managing Director, President, CEO and many others.

      Hope this is helpful.