Is that a bullshit title you have there?

Apr 04, 2023

4 mins

Is that a bullshit title you have there?
Lorraine Posthuma

Freelance translator and journalist

Job descriptions such as sales representative, marketing manager, and software developer seem perfectly clear to most of us, but they just aren’t cutting it for some these days. Instead, there are shiny new titles including sales ninja, chief amazement officer in charge of knocking everyone’s socks off, and digital prophet on the trail of future tech trends. So why are companies doling out these sassy titles? And is it worth snagging one for yourself?

As the world of work evolves, new roles continue to appear and with them new titles such as social media manager, audience editor, and brand content manager. These were created to describe those doing jobs that didn’t exist before. In recent years, however, a slew of quirky ones have popped up too. Say hello to the director of first impressions, formerly known as the receptionist, and the director of last impressions, who Wednesday Addams would simply call a mortician, among others. The list is long and odd.

When job seekers are searching for new roles, there are dozens of titles to scroll through. So it makes sense for companies to try to stand out, according to Tiffany Castagno, chief executive and founder of Cephr, a human resources consultancy. “People are tired of ‘boring’ titles and are hungry for something that says, ‘We’re fun! We’re innovative! We stand out! Look at us!’,” she says.

This tactic is especially helpful for start-ups and other smaller companies, according to Castagno, who understand that employees leave organizations where they don’t feel seen, heard, valued, or appreciated. “These titles can support individuality but also connectedness to something larger outside of themselves depending on how the organization promotes collaboration and other things they value as an organization,” she says.

Titles such as “unicorn” can make an employee feel valued, according to Castagno. “It signals being rare, unique, and special – maybe even translating into a high performer before they even start,” she says. “For those whose titles are changed internally or who move into a ‘unicorn’ role, it could signal a different layer of visibility, exposure, and experience – or at least a perception [of that]. There could also be an opportunity to give additional stretch opportunities to grow and develop employees.”

Paying the price

The flip side is that a new title doesn’t always mean more money. “Rather than increase salaries or promote employees, a company might assign lofty job titles as an alternative. If this is the case, the company achieves its goal of job retention, but the employee gains nothing,” says Castagno.

Leadership coach DeAnna Avis at Watch This Sp_ce, an organization that helps companies improve their diversity and inclusion efforts, agrees. “In a competitive job market, stroking people’s egos via a fancy title can be a way to attract them,” she says. “An elevated title can reward someone in a way that isn’t monetary.”

If the word “manager” is added into a title, employers often don’t have to pay their employees overtime. A National Bureau of Economic Research study explains that some companies use job titles to escape overtime payments. “We estimate that firms avoid roughly 13.5% in overtime expenses for each strategic ‘manager’ hired,” it says.

Why you might reject a tempting bullshit title

A jaunty new title may be tempting, but it’s not always advisable to accept one. Here’s why it may be better to resist:

It’s confusing for everyone

Employees with fancy titles may struggle to get noticed, let alone hired when applying for subsequent jobs because their title is too confusing. In a 2022 survey by JobSage, an employer review site, 40% of hiring managers said they’d had trouble finding the right person for a position because candidates’ past job titles were overstated or confusing.

It might not be accurate

In the same JobSage survey, 48% of hiring managers said job titles are “less reliable indicators of skills than they used to be.” Out of the 700 employees who participated in the JobSage survey, 28% admitted to holding lofty titles at one time or another that overstated their skills. Avis says, “People are sometimes given inflated job titles that are out of sync with the reality of what they are doing.” Bullshit titles can cause a disconnect between expectations and reality. According to Avis, this happens because our expertise doesn’t align with our title. “A customer service maxim applies well when it comes to job titles – it is better to underpromise and overdeliver,” she says.

It can cause heads to grow

Many companies are striving for equality and fairness in the workplace, but extreme titles don’t help. “Having more egalitarian job titles across an organization helps prevent people from ego tripping and encourages collaboration and mutual respect,” says Avis. “Big titles in general inflate egos – even if the title is accurate – and therefore they reinforce hierarchical thinking and inequality in the workplace, with some voices deemed more worthy of listening to than others.

Avis confesses that she gave herself a bullshit title last year. “I fell prey to vanity titles when I started my own customer experience consultancy in 2022. I appointed myself as founder and chief experience officer, thinking that sounded fancy,” Avis says. “I later decided to abandon the inflated job title and now I call myself exactly what I do: a customer experience consultant.”

What to do if you have a bullshit title

Rethink it

Avis encourages people to look at what they do. “We need to think beyond one word or one title summing anyone up. What’s more important than a job title is how we embody what we do,” she says. “Together with my colleagues, we’re changing the world of work for the better. That, to me, is more satisfying than having a fancy title on a business card”.

Talk to your boss

If you’ve accepted an inflated title and regret it, have an honest conversation with your boss or manager and HR. Avis says, “Recognize that job titles can be changed, and we should be reviewing their fit regularly as our responsibilities and roles change.”

Telling it like it is

When it comes down to it, a job title is intended to describe an employee’s role and responsibilities at work. If it doesn’t do that, it’s not doing its job. At the same time, it can have value when awarded to the right person at the right time. Avis says, “An elevated title can increase people’s aspirations and encourage them to grow. It’s definitely good to stretch ourselves and have an ambitious vision.” That’s something worth aiming for in itself.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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