It’s Time For Standardized Job Titles (At Least Internally)


Get Shift Done: Management

Over the past couple of decades, many companies began using job titles that were…a little unusual. From the Chief People Person to the Digital Marketing Magician, Wizard of Light Bulb Moments, and Director of Fundom, it’s become hard to understand what people actually do.

On the upside, this is fun, especially for startups that want to break free and stand out. One the downside, the meaning of titles, especially those with no counterpart outside of their organization, have become opaque and confusing.

What’s the harm? Titles are more than just a bunch of words. Titles convey important information in a quick way including: seniority, skill sets, and scope of responsibility.

Titles convey important information in a quick way.

For example:

  • A Junior Sales Rep is some one who’s just starting out in the role. Their skills are newly learned to non-existent and their scope of responsibility covers themselves alone.
  • The Vice President of Sales on the other hand has been at there job a long time. Their skill sets are deep and their scope of responsibility covers the entire sales function of the organization.
  • The Wizard of Light Bulb Moments is someone that, well, that is to say. Actually, we have no idea what this person does.

Those bullet points illustrates the confusing title situation in a nutshell. While you may root for an underdog (the Junior Sales Rep) and respect an experienced senior (the Vice President of Sales), you don’t know how to treat The Wizard of Light Bulb Moments. And if that’s the case, why have titles in the first place? To appease an ego? That’ll get you far…

If your organization’s titles are meaningless, why have titles in the first place?

This isn’t to say that every title must meet some corporate style naming convention. But for titles to be effective, you must be, at least, internally consistent.

The Reclamation of Titles

There are three important pieces to building (or re-building) the effectiveness of any title within your organization.

First: Describe it.

If you want non-managerial titles to mean something, they must be backed by job descriptions that accurately describe the expectations and responsibilities of someone holding that title.

Sure, each position has nuances and specialized skills associated with it. But that’s no excuse for not having absolute clarity as to what is expected from someone inhabiting that role.

For example, let’s say you work within an IT organization and you’re looking at two developers from different teams. One works on mobile applications. The other works on the back office financial application. While they work on very different technologies, if they’re both titled “Lead Software Engineer”, you should feel confident that they’ve met certain criteria to reach that level, and that they can lead projects.

One more thing on job descriptions: as someone who was once hired as a director, but told that I would have no reports or approval authority, a title should meaningfully match the job descriptions. If it does not, the information it conveys can be garbled.

A title should meaningfully match the job descriptions. If it does not, the information it conveys can be garbled.

Second: Be transparent.

If you want the people in your organization to understand a title, they need to have access to its job description. The seniority, skill sets, and scope of responsibility that go along with the title shouldn’t be a state secret.

Transparency in job descriptions has an added benefit. If everyone knows what it means to be a ‘Senior Whatsit’, they‘re aware what is expected of them to reach that level within the organization.

Third: Award a title only to someone who fits it.

You need to make sure that an employee with a title meets the expectations inherent in that title based on the job description.

For example, you wouldn’t give the Junior Sales Rep the Vice President of Sales title now, would you?

There is one downside to this approach: when you find someone that doesn’t meet the expectations, or vastly exceed the expectations, of their given title, you have some challenging questions to address:

  • Will the under-performer be able to meet the expectations of the role in a reasonable amount of time? If you don’t think they can get there in the next 6 months, you might have to adjust their title accordingly.
  • Are you holding back on rewarding the over-performer with a new, more appropriate title? This can create many problems, the least of which is the loss of that employee.
  • And lastly, you need to ask how this happened. Was this a result of lack of clarity around the title? Or is the promotion process off-kilter? In either case, adjustments should be made.

Summing Up

In the end, it’s the title framework and process that matters. Clarity is achieved when your employees understand what each title means and are confident that the right people are filling those roles.

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