Every time we come out to speak to new people (be it a networking event or your friend’s birthday party), the first question you’re asked is “What do you do?“. Understandably so: its a great conversation starter. However most of us while being asked have troubles finding the answer. Do I say what my title is or should I just go ahead and explain what I actually do? While title is a quick answer, it often means nothing to people you speak to and brings no joy to the speaker.
There’s a lot of buzz now around unconventional companies who gave up on traditional employee titles. Apple introducing a Genius role, Google’s “Jolly good fella“, start-ups full of Sales Ninjas. Is it just a trend or a change coming in the way we see our employees impact on organization? While I am intrigued but still undecided about the issue, I will analyse pros and cons first.
Where do the titles come from? Most of jobs are created before the person is hired. Something needs to be done and it needs to be packaged to be sold to a potential hire. So we come up with a title and a job role description, and that’s how we find the matching candidate. However if we’d be really honest, most of the times when role is created we don’t know what this role will evolve into. While we know what we need to be done in the next year, we don’t know what we’ll need afterwards.
The trouble with the titles is that because of the uncertainty, we try to keep them flexible and a bit vague. We do this to give room for initiative, opportunity for growth. That’s how everyone ends up to be a “project manager”. While we are working on keeping things “general”, titles have less and less meaning. When you meet another “PMO” or “operations manager”, for some reason, you still need to ask what exactly it means. Even HR managers all do something different. So why giving a generic title that means nothing?
There are few key practical reasons that come to mind:
- Experience level. If you’re new you get to be a coordinator, not a manager. Earn your title by years in the industry. Titles is the easiest way to build the hierarchy.
- Job needs to be done. We need a certain skill, we name the job the same way.
- Compensation grades. Title often defines how much you’re paid.
That’s how we know that a new hire in sales reporting to a “Director” cannot be higher than a “Manager”, will have the same function name (sales) and will be paid significantly less. The title shows clearly the place in the hierarchy while not saying much about the actual job.
Here are few reasons we should consider rethinking how to call our employees.
1. Motivation & Ownership. One of the key drivers of engagement is giving employees a purpose. Why don’t we let them choose a title that manifests it? Imagine having a title you’d be proud of, that would clearly reflect the role you do or want to play. Let titles describe an impact/purpose rather than every day routine. By giving a higher purpose, we give freedom of achieving it and having an ownership of the process.
It also seems that some titles always meant to say “you’re not important”. Better sounding job roles can improve engagement and feeling of ownership. I came across an awesome title while writing this – Director of First Impressions. You know who that is? A receptionist. Maybe it’s too much, but try to do a poor job with that title!
2. Hierarchy weight. While we established that titles define levels of authority well, maybe we can get rid of its negative implications. Employees already know who they report to, no need to point it out every time they introduce themselves. Let them feel important in their field and have autonomy of decision making within their area of expertise. How about being an IT Guru or a Solutions provider , rather than an IT support team member or a sales executive.
3. Flexibility. What we do often changes every few months, but our job titles stay the same. Don’t make titles set in stone, – focus of the role can shift depending on the time of the year, projects you’re involved in or even company’s direction. How about reviewing the job titles (and job descriptions) every year?
And here are the few things we should consider before making a change:
- Preparation. Don’t go crazy. Before changing everything, consult your employees, think about implications externally, design communication plan, make sure your comp&ben processes are ready, create a framework.
- Comp & Ben. People still want to grow and be promoted with a salary increase and a grade system helps. Keep a background grading scale, but not depending on titles, but scope and level of work.
- External recognition. If customer wants to meet with a Sales manager, why not be a sales manager. If candidates would more likely search for “marketing” than a “customer happiness” , make your roles more visible by using a more popular title. If needed, have external titles for creative internal ones.
- Reality check. Don’t overshoot. Don’t call a “guru” someone who is not an expert in the field. It can only damage reputation internally and externally, for the employee or the whole company.
- Do not decide for the employees. Let them agree with how they will be called. Maybe even let their colleagues come up with the titles, this way recognition will be guaranteed as well.
As someone who puts employee engagement first, I am pro-choice, however considering the world is a place that likes structure, – I am voting for double titles. There has to be one that we can use internally, among colleagues, to give a sense of purpose of the job; and one external, more traditional, that will still help people relate.
It’s amazing though how a different title can light up a conversation about work, give a sense of purpose and a reason to wake up smiling on Monday morning. Why would we say no to that? 🙂