Oct 082015

The Problem with Titles

The Problem with Titles

This will no doubt be a controversial post, and it’s more of a rant than I usually write. I’ll also admit up front that I always try to present solutions alongside problems…but this is one problem that doesn’t have an obvious and practical solution.  I hate titles. My old boss from years ago at MovieFone used to say that nothing good could come from either Titles or Org Charts – both were “the gift that keeps on giving…and not in a good way.”

I hate titles because they are impossible to get right and frequently cause trouble inside a company. Here are some of the typical problems caused by titles:

  • External-facing people may benefit from a Big Title when dealing with clients or the outside world in general. I was struck at MovieFone that people at Hollywood studios had titles like Chairman of Marketing (really?), but that creates inequity inside a company or rampant title inflation
  • Different managers and different departments, and quite frankly, different professions, can have different standards and scales for titles that are hard to reconcile.  Is a Controller a VP or a Senior Director?  And does it really matter?
  • Some employees care about titles more than others and either ask or demand title changes that others don’t care about.  Titles are easy (free) to give, so organizations frequently hand out big titles that create internal strife or envy or lead to title inflation
  • Titles don’t always align with comp, especially across departments. Would you rather be a director making $X, or a senior manager making $X+10?
  • Merger integrations often focus on titles as a way of placating people or sending a signal to “the other side” — but the title lasts forever, where the need that a big title is fulfilling is more likely short term
  • Internal equity of titles but an external mismatch can cause a lot of heartache both in hiring and in noting who is in a management role
  • Promotions as a concept associated with titles are challenging.  Promotions should be about responsibility, ownership and commensurate compensation.  Titles are inappropriately used as a promotion indicator because it inherently makes other people feel like they have been demoted when keeping the same title
  • Why do heads of finance carry a C-level title but heads of sales usually carry an EVP or SVP title, with usually more people and at least equal responsibility?  And does it sound silly when everyone senior has a C level title?  What about C-levels who don’t report to the CEO or aren’t even on the executive team?
  • Ever try to recalibrate titles, or move even a single title, downward?  Good luck

What good comes from titles?  People who have external-facing roles can get a boost from a big title. Titles may be helpful to people when they go look for a new job, and while you can argue that it’s not your organization’s job to help your people find their next job, you also have to acknowledge that your company isn’t the only company in the world.

Titles are also about role clarity and who does what and what you can expect from someone in a department.  You can do that with a job description and certainly within an organization, it is easy to learn these things through course of business after you join.  But especially when an organization gets big, it can serve more of a purpose.  I suppose titles also signal how senior a person is in an organization, as do org charts, but those feel more like useful tools for new employees to understand a company’s structure or roles than something that all employees need every day.

Could the world function without titles?  Or could a single organization do well without titles, in a world where everyone else has titles? There are some companies that don’t have titles. One, Morning Star, was profiled in a Harvard Business Review article, and I’ve spoken to the people there a bit. They acknowledge that lack of titles makes it a little hard to hire in from the outside, but that they train the recruiters they work with how to do without titles – noting that comp ranges for new positions, as well as really solid job descriptions, help.

All thoughts are welcome on this topic.  I’m not sure there’s a good answer.  And for Return Pathers reading this, it’s just a think piece, not a trial balloon or proposal, and it wasn’t prompted by any single act or person, just an accumulation of thoughts over the years.

Filed under: Human Resources, Management

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