I recently received a LinkedIn connection request from a “penetration specialist”. After wondering about the role’s responsibilities, a friend and a quick Google search informed that a penetration specialist simulates cyberattacks on computer systems and networks to identify security gaps. Couldn’t the LinkedIn person just use “cybersecurity specialist”?
Perhaps it isn’t cool or unique enough in today’s corporate world, where the need to be different has resulted in a dizzying array of inflated, even confusing, designations—“Regional Transportation Reengineering Supervision Director”, “Director of First Impressions” (for a receptionist), Beverage Dissemination Officer (a bartender). In the quest to appear extraordinary, are corporate titles becoming meaningless? The answer is not simple, for there are advantages and disadvantages to any title and approach. Striking a balance between the fantastic and straightforward is key, experts say.
Job titles are meant to define an individual’s role and position, but they also reflect our inherent need for distinctiveness. “Fundamentally, our mind tends to be hierarchical. We have a desire for uniqueness and prestige, and this translates into the workplace also,” says Asha Bhandarker, distinguished professor of organizational behaviour at Delhi’s International Management Institute. But the attempt to be unique has spurned a plethora of questionable corporate titles and the trend of “title-fluffing” or “up-titling”, creating important-sounding titles to make a role sound more appealing.
Bhandarker recalls her time in public sector organizations in the 80s and 90s, when there was a large managerial cadre and companies were not growing but had to show career growth. “So, titles were given to show progress. You may have been in the same pay band, with perhaps a slight allowance increase. The work was the same, but it made people feel like they were moving forward.”
Companies have grown and roles diversified since then, leading to a proliferation of senior titles. There is no standardization across industries where similar titles have varying experience and responsibility levels. CEOs can be the head of a one-person company or a sprawling multinational organization. Directors, presidents, vice-presidents, and partners abound, particularly in larger companies, which can be confusing. “In today’s largely service-oriented firms, we have titles like vice-presidents (VPs). Some larger organizations have hundreds of VPs. Their roles or experience levels are unclear,” says Delhi-based Rajat Gupta, director of Mani Capital Ltd, a financial services firm. “Partners exist in partnership firms, but within a corporation I do not understand their role.”
The abundance of senior titles, regardless of experience, can stem from a company’s need to establish credibility with external clients or stakeholders, who want to engage with experienced professionals and decision makers.
But inflated or frivolous titles can be confusing when hiring new employees. With no standardization of designations, companies can have a hard time determining relevant experience from a CV with vague designations.
With new focus areas, like diversity, equity, and inclusion, it is logical that relevant roles and titles have emerged around these areas. “It makes sense when corporate titles come up with new businesses, industries, or verticals,” says Gupta.
While Happyness Officers, Brand Evangelists, and Wizards of Lightbulb Moments (marketing directors) sound over the top, some believe they are apt within creative fields, startups, or industries emphasizing innovation. “They bring in a fun element and can be useful in attracting relevant talent in creative professions,” says Bhandarker.
“As an HR professional, I think that traditional titles still hold significance, while the emergence of unique and playful titles reflects companies’ desire to create a distinct culture. It can attract attention and talent, but it’s important to strike a balance between creativity and clarity,” says Shikha Kapoor, head (talent management), at UX design agency ZEUX Innovation. She advocates for titles that accurately represent roles and responsibilities while being meaningful to employees and customers.
Titles also provide employees with a sense of value and responsibility. Promotions are accompanied by more senior titles and signal career progression. However, these are meaningless if unaccompanied by financial growth, manageable workload, and respect from peers.
What’s more, promotions not based on merit, but given to the best-networked or most visible employees, diminish the credibility of titles. An employee may be capable or experienced, but in a competitive workplace their quietude may be deemed unsuitable for a promotion and loftier designation. “The title business has become ridiculous. I feel companies need to come up with something more equitable,” says Gupta.
Gurugram-based Kaveri Nag has been on both the sides, starting her career in a company that had more generic titles instead of specific designations, and then moving on to organizations with more traditional hierarchical titles.
“In my first job, I didn’t mind the flat structure. But now in my career, when I am hiring people, I realize just calling everyone a ‘manager’, regardless of capability and experience is not helpful,” says Nag, head of marketing at a global fashion brand. “There are reasons for these titles, making one accountable and responsible in their roles. Flat structures do not work and fancy titles, on the other hand, are just marketing tactics.”
Many believe that general role descriptions, like ‘business development” and “marketing and sales”, rather than specific titles, allow for people to be defined by their work, not their titles. This approach could help in a friendlier and more collaborative work culture and lead to good work being rewarded with financial growth and meaningful projects.
However, lack of titles or inflated titles can be equally unhelpful in external interactions. “Regardless of flat or hierarchical structured organizations, people want to meet the decision maker,” says Bhandarker.
Kapoor believes a title-less approach creates challenges in comprehending job roles and in professional interactions, with general descriptors being too vague. “Clear titles provide clarity, facilitate hiring decisions, and establish credibility when interacting with others professionally. Striking a balance between flexibility and clarity is crucial for effective communication and external perceptions.”
It is unlikely that there will ever be a complete erasure of job titles, as flat structures are also challenging. Financial growth and evolving work responsibilities may help people progress without designations, but many value job titles to help with external interactions, in hiring, and in clearly understanding their position.
Clear and simple titles may be best, but the human need for prestige and worth is what leads to constant experimentation and innovation in nomenclature.
“This dance will continue. It’s a lot like fashion trends—sometimes long, sometimes shorter, and so on,” says Bhandarker. “We, humans, need mental stimulation, freshness and change. And if large companies do something, everyone else follows.”