What's in a job title? 'A rose by any other name ...'

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Fair Exchange

Q No. 1: I got a new job with more responsibility but my job title makes it look like a demotion.

Q No. 2: My friend works at another company doing the same kind of work I do but he has a much better job title.

Answer: Over my career I have had employees try to barter away pay for a different job title. I know employees who printed their own business cards after rejecting their company assigned title. I’ve even seen a few people try to negotiate a title and lose a new job because of it.

What’s important is that you enjoy your work and are proud of what you accomplish, and that you like and respect your boss and co-workers and they feel the same about you. If your pay is competitive and you are recognized for your good work, you are in an enviable position even if your job title has no pizzazz.

But if you are like many employees who aren’t happy with their job titles, I doubt I can convince you to like it, though maybe I can help you put it in perspective.

First, every company has its own approach to job titles. There are a few jobs (nurse, teacher, and electrician) that have pretty standard duties and titles. But in most businesses — especially small businesses — there are great variations in actual duties linked to a job title.

How the work is organized varies based on company needs. How job titles are applied depends on the inclination of the business owner. An office manager at one business could be doing about the same work as an administrative assistant at another.

A job title is simply a label. It’s a way to organize information and identify who is responsible for what inside a company. A job title should help customers or vendors connect with the right person. If you put too much emphasis on the status you read in a job title you can easily feel slighted. Titles are so inexact and are easily changed at the whim of a new manager; my recommendation is to focus on what really matters.

Here’s an illustration on why I recommend accepting whatever job title you are given. When Silicon Valley was young, several companies created a new job title for senior engineers — Wizard. For a few years wizards were popping up like dandelions. Other companies stuck with the classic job titles.

The president of a company I worked with was so tired of the arguments over titles that he decided to create a few very generic job titles hoping to end the squabbles. In his company all engineers were lumped together under one title: Engineer.

So, depending on which company you worked for you were either a senior engineer, an engineer or a wizard. The work was very comparable in complexity and the technical skills required, but to interpret the job titles you had to know the job title system within the company. 

Company size matters. An accounting supervisor in a 100-employee company may have more responsibility and a more challenging job than an accounting manager in a 2,000-employee company. In a small company the the supervisor may be doing everything from accounts payable to generating the month-end financial statements, taxes and financial analysis. But in a large company the manager is probably focused on one area of accounting with limited authority.

Job Title and pay. Pay is based on a mix of things: level of responsibility, job complexity, supply and demand in the labor market, what a company can afford to pay and what the company owner or president wants to pay. Making assumptions about someone’s pay based on a job title is not a good idea.

Best job titles ever! Many years ago one of the large poultry processors asked my firm for help with a large compensation project. It is one of my favorite memories for one simple reason: their job titles were well-organized by rank and function, and they made me smile. Handing out business cards with “Vice-President, Turkeys” and “Chicken Marketing Manager” takes courage and a thick skin. This is the one company where I would suggest less-descriptive job titles.

Virginia Detweiler is a human resources consultant and has taught business and management at Walla Walla Community College’s Business and Professional Development Program and at Walla Walla University. Questions for her columns can be submitted to her email address at wwcomplady@gmail.com. Those used will be edited to remove information that would identify the sender. She also can be reached at 509-529-1910.

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