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What's The Future For Job Titles?

Posted by Mervyn Dinnen

02-Sep-2014 08:56:19

shutterstock_132848441There was once a time when it was easy to know what someone did from their job title - for example a teacher taught and a shelf stacker stacked shelves. Today those two roles can attract much more descriptive names such as knowledge navigator and ambient replenishment controller, with the result that whilst we may not know exactly what job they do, we'll have a clearer idea of how and why they do it.

Not every business is as creative with their titles even though roles evolve and grow. Up to half of today's job openings probably didn't exist 10 years ago yet in many cases we still try to describe them with existing titles, or put them in the same organisational structure as before, even though the scope, deliverables and key internal relationships may be very different. These roles often require a broader skill set, and carry a wider remit, which the title may not accurately convey.

Some companies have responded by trying to give their staff something more aspirational. In the US Taco Bell refer to their employees as 'champions' - those preparing the food are 'food champions' and those at the till are 'service champions' - whilst Disney refer to theirs as 'cast members' and Apple have a few 'geniuses' on the payroll.

Whilst these "optimistic" labels can backfire, they do also have the potential to make workers happier according to Professor Adam Grant, from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. “If employees identify strongly with the titles” he says “they may actually find them meaningful” In one of Grant’s studies he also concluded that when employees came up with their own titles, they were less emotionally exhausted by their jobs.

We often hear talk of 'jobtitle inflation' particularly during more challenging business cycles when companies have little room to manoeuvre on pay and benefits, but have staff to retain and keep happy. The term relates to giving employees a grander job title, which may be enough to give them a boost but without the greater rewards and responsibility that boost risks being short lived. This conundrum was illustrated in a Resolution Foundation report back in 2012 - tellingly titled We're All Managers Now - which showed that increasing numbers of people with senior sounding job titles earned decidedly middle ranking wages, not least in retail where nearly 60% of managers earned less than £400 per week.

If most organisations appear to still favour traditional job titles then here are some of the main reasons why:

  • Helps us to focus on what we're supposed to be doing

  • Lets others know what we do, or what areas we are responsible for

  • Defines, or clarifies, our status in a hierarchical organisation

  • Eases the recruitment process as many job seekers look for similar roles to the ones they have done (or a step up)

  • Shows the level of our accountability

  • Can justify our pay grade


There are downsides though. Some of the most widely raised are:

  • They can limit our ambition

  • May define our abilities and value to the business too restrictively

  • Skills and capabilities can become generalised

  • Makes us too protective of our perceived status

  • Implies a level of ability that we may not have yet gained or may not aspire to

  • Can fuel office politics if employees find themselves operating outside a supposed 'rank'

The difficulty that many are beginning to find - whether they are defining roles within a business, hiring or job hunting - is that two people may have the same job title but possess very different capabilities and skills. Marketing Managers may share a title and pay grade but their experience of digital, creative, content, media and comms may be very different.

As Leif Abraham, partner at venture development firm Prehype, recently wrote:

"The problem with job titles is when people get put into boxes, their skills get generalised. What Designer A can do might be extremely different from what Designer B has to offer. Their core skill might still be, in a broad sense, “design,” but what about all the other skills a person might have? I guarantee if you sit down with a colleague tomorrow and ask them about their skills and passions you will suddenly learn a bundle of things about them that you never knew before and might just be useful to the company"

His suggestion is a skill cloud. Defined as a tag showing everything someone can do, ranked by experience, past projects and how much they like doing it, this seems a great way to find out more about people, their passions, skills and interests and where they can add most value to projects.

A major bonus from looking at what someone can do is that it could lead to a broader, 'horizontal' style talent development - exposing them to new work and projects that will help broaden expertise and experience - rather than the traditional, narrower 'vertical' talent development, which tends to strengthen a set skill within a specific range of duties.

As well as helping with team building this approach could also play a key role in staffing up a developing, innovative, agile businesses of the future by facilitating a more fluid approach to talent development - and hence the roles that people do - enabling individuals to hone skills and capabilities in line with interests and passions. With the nature of employer relationships becoming more flexible and less well defined this would also encourage talent to look at developing their own areas of expertise, acquiring knowledge that could be important in the future. Certainly adaptability and a broader base of skills are being valued as desirable attributes in modern workers.

So what is the future for job titles?

Is it to create new and inventive ways to explain what you do? Give them more aspirational names? Try to shoehorn new skills into existing sectors and disciplines?

Or maybe the future lies not with purely a straightforward title, but using it in tandem with defining a collection of adaptable skills, capabilities and competencies.

There's a way to go, and mindsets and organisational hierarchies to change, but my preference is the for the latter - what's yours?