Job Title Traps and How They Can Snare You

Do you remember your first job title? In business mine was coordinator—Consumer Education Programs. Oh, that sounded so sweet to me.

Our first jobs are where we get our feet wet and start to showcase our talents. The plan is usually to upgrade our titles for swankier ones that come with higher salaries. 

The traps await 

Companies create titles to define their hierarchy and manage payroll. They write titles they hope we want to wear. 

Unfortunately, titles aren’t always what they seem to be. They can become traps, manipulations, and disguises, like this: 

Playing to your ego—We’re told we have the “potential” for a higher level job. Even though we don’t particularly want either the job or the accountabilities, we opt in, unable to resist the expected  roar of the crowd. (Trap)

Being placated—After we tell our boss (who’s been standing in our way) a hundred times that we’re frustrated about our careers, we’re given a fancy new job title and a new pay grade but our work stays the same. (Manipulation)

Inflating roles—Most often done at high levels, companies will reward loyal but dead-ended employees with fancier titles, like senior and executive VP, or even special assistant to the CEO, but the scope of their work doesn’t change. (Disguise)

Diluting value—Increasing the number of employees with titles like VP, director, and senior manager reduces the significance/importance/influence of the role, often positioning under-qualified people in them. (Trap)

Resetting pay scales—When companies need to put the lid on payroll costs, they often implement a re-titling initiative that eliminates certain titles, replacing them with others rated lower. Your new title might sound important, but it now has a reduced pay range. (Manipulation) 

I’ve been boggled throughout my career by some of my own title experiences. I was: 

  • “Promoted” from consumer programs manager to management training supervisor, and never understood why the supervisor job paid more, but it did
  • Promoted from customer services manager to director-customer services with a huge change in scope but no change in salary
  • “Rehired” based on a reorganization, going from director-customer services to manager-business management services (whatever that meant) but my salary wasn’t affected 

In the end, the question is: “So what?” 

Achievement isn’t a title

Titles should indicate expertise, influence, and alignment. Some titles that do the well and others don’t. 

I am a big of fan Suzanne Lucas, blogger at Evil HR Lady (her tongue-in-cheek handle) and BNET. She recently wrote the spot on post, “Does Your Title Matter? Plus Free Chocolate!” (You’ll have to go there to learn about the chocolate!) 

Suzanne writes: 

“Here is my worst job title ever: Functional Lead, HR Transition.  Do you have any idea what my job responsibilities were?  Of course you don’t, unless you are one of the many people I helped ‘transition’ out of the company over the years…
And that’s the problem with bad titles.  No one that doesn’t know what you do, can figure out what it is that you do.  Now, most of the time, this makes no difference.” 

Titles only becomes traps if we let them. Just because, the company puts us in a title box doesn’t mean we’re trapped in it. 

Titles mean nothing. Results do. If you’re puffing yourself up or dragging yourself down because of your title, snap out of it. 

When someone asks you, “What do you do?” Answer the question with content, not your job title. What your title means in your company is likely not what it means in someone else’s. 

Suzanne sums it up this way:

“It’s not what your title is that really matters, it’s what you do and what your compensation is that you should be fighting for.” 

It’s a lot more important to let people know, both inside and outside your company, that you’re doing valuable work. Get people to brand you by your contribution, not your title. That’s how you’ll get to next rung of the ladder if that’s your aim.

Photo from Alex E. Proimos via Flickr