Do Job Titles Matter?

August 7, 2018


In an ideal world, job titles would be irrelevant. An employee’s skills and accomplishments would be the actual indicators of his or her ability, authority and responsibility. But in today’s world, job titles do matter—not just to administrative professionals, but to employees in every organization and every industry across the spectrum.  A recent survey of office workers helps to prove this point—fully 70 percent of respondents said they would choose a better job title over a raise. There are many reasons for that eye-opening reaction. Here are some of the most relevant ones.

Job titles allow colleagues, clients, customers, suppliers and others—basically everyone inside and outside an organization—to instantly and accurately identify where an individual stands in the company hierarchy. It telegraphs a person’s roles and responsibilities, their ability to carry out assignments and respond to requests, and their potential for job and career growth. And it lets people know whom to approach to gather essential information or to facilitate or carry out specific tasks.

A “good” (appropriate) title can help an employee gain status and respect among peers and managers, and of course, receive a higher level of compensation and perks (say, an office instead of a cubicle or company credit card). A “bad” (inappropriate) job title can undermine an employee’s authority and hold back their career prospects—both internally and externally. When a job title doesn’t match someone’s duties, people will see that individual as less accomplished than he or she actually is—and may not take them seriously, to the detriment of their work and their ability to advance.

That said, titles can be flat-out confounding. Is “marketing lead” better than “marketing manager” or “marketing coordinator”? Does “manager” signify that an individual manages people—or a function? Which of the following titles indicates a higher level of responsibility: “Deputy Director,” “Assistant Director,” or “Senior Manager”? Titles can mean different things to different people, as well as indicate varying responsibilities from organization to organization. (In the creative field, titles can be even more opaque. “Chief Happiness Officer,” “Sales Ninja,” and “Digital Prophet” are all actual titles. People inside a particular organization may understand these designations; those outside may shake their heads in amused confusion.)

During a job search, a title can be as important as salary. Recruiters (and recruiting algorithms) view titles as an indication of a worker’s contributions to their organization, as well as of their worth. Inaccurate titles can send a false signal to recruiters and hiring managers, leaving many worthy candidates out in the cold.

When you’re engaged in a job search and your title doesn’t accurately reflect your responsibilities, it’s important that your resume and cover letter go into detail about your specific accomplishments and job duties, and explain your level of authority. Once the resume and cover letter lands you an interview, you can discuss the discrepancy in person, making it clear that you’ve been doing a higher-level work than your title indicates. Of course, an even better approach would be to obtain a title boost before initiating a job search.

There are many ways to secure a more relevant job title. You can take classes and earn a professional certification, or you can return to school and complete a degree. Getting a promotion or landing a new job are other possibilities.

Or, you can simply ask for a title change, ideally during your annual or semi-annual performance review. Before a review, however, it’s important to research how the title you desire aligns with standards for your industry and with the staffing structure of your current organization. It’s imperative that you ask for a title with the right “fit”—one that will help take you wherever you want to go.

When negotiating a title change, it’s also important to emphasize how the change will benefit your organization. Will it help you interact with and direct others more successfully? Will it aid you in garnering more respect and thus in accomplishing more? The boss or HR person needs to hear these arguments. After a title change is successfully negotiated, it’s important to get the details in writing. (And should you land a new job within your organization, but be awarded no title change—be aware that your new position may be on the chopping block.)

As mentioned earlier, a title can determine an individual’s level of influence—real and implied—in the eyes of those within and outside of the company. With a better title, not only will people respond to your requests more quickly, but they’ll look to you for assistance. For example, those with “junior” or entry level titles will turn to those with “senior” titles for guidance and encouragement.

Another reason to obtain a credible title: Should your title not reflect your ability to make autonomous decisions, colleagues and clients may be slow to return calls and email, as well as to fulfill other requests.

Should your title not give you the clout you need to complete a crucial task, ask the boss if you can write a memo under his or her name, and send it from their email account. Or, you can (if true), tell a colleague “The CEO needs this [piece of information/task accomplished] today.” Either tact should result in a lightning-fast response.

Last, but hardly least, job titles should always be motivational, aspirational and empowering. Everyone needs to feel smart, important and well-regarded. An imposing job title can be surprisingly motivating, helping people understand that their contributions are valued and that they have a degree of control over their work and their ability to make independent decisions.

A credible title can enhance your pride and confidence by reinforcing your organization’s belief in your potential, and it can indicate the next step in a career progression. Employees are well aware of the job and title a step above theirs. A desire to move up the career ladder motivates many to work harder and accomplish more in order to be promoted.

In situations where raises are off the table or negligible due to a down economy or lagging sales, an impressive title can offer an important psychological boost—one that costs an organization nothing while signaling that it recognizes an employee’s efforts, expertise and promise.

An appropriate job title can mean the difference between enjoying a thriving career and being stuck in a dead-end job—so make it a priority to be aware of the potential prestige, recognition and rewards of a realistic job title.

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