How Important Are Job Titles?

Disparities between duties of the same job title can cause confusion. Business leaders should proceed with caution.
job titles

Disparities between job titles and job tasks could pose challenges for companies and employees. For instance, if two employees do the same work but hold different titles, it can create organizational confusion as to who is responsible for what tasks.

“More importantly,” said Jim Hudner, managing director in the Boston office of Pearl Meyer LLC, a compensation consulting firm based in New York, “if the different titles result in differences in how each position is paid, this could create pay equity issues for the employer.”

In the modern, global workplace, where job titles have grown to become more creative and, in some instances, ambiguous, are they still the most accurate way to indicate what jobs employees perform?

Skills vs. Titles

Employers are beginning to shift the focus from job titles to skills, said Susan Vitale, chief marketing officer at applicant tracking firm iCIMS. “Job titles are typically such few words that can carry a lot of weight, but job titles aren’t the end-all, be-all in today’s modern job market,” she said.

Focusing on the skills needed for a position, rather than just relying on the job title, is a shift that benefits both employers and job seekers. “This level of transparency allows job seekers to have a greater understanding for the job they are interested in and can help them decide whether or not they are qualified and should apply,” Vitale said. As a result, employers will receive best-fit candidates.

Categorizing jobs by skills and proficiencies will democratize the job market so people who lack certain titles will gain necessary experience to move up their career ladders, said Rick Devine, CEO of TalentSky Inc., a career experience network platform based in San Francisco.

“Right now, visibility in the employment system is based upon titles” and the company associated with it, he said. When candidates seek a new job with a certain title, their applications can easily be passed over because they lack that same title. Thus, they never get a chance to perform the job in the first place.

“I feel that titles are vessels. We need to articulate what’s in there,” Devine added. Titles need to be broken down into skills and proficiencies involved. By doing so, current employees can see available paths for promotion internally and understand what they need in order to develop themselves into a new role. Most workers would prefer to stay in the company where they are, as changing employers can be risky.

But, “if you can’t see it, then it feels hopeless,” Devine said. It’s the job of employers to provide opportunity for people, which means providing that development and hope for new roles.

However, job titles still matter to people, and receiving a new title has a “psychological impact” on employees, who will feel that management recognizes their efforts, said Yasmin Sahami, talent acquisition manager at ZipRecruiter, an online job board based in Santa Monica, California. The title change will help them feel more accomplished and as though they’re advancing in their careers. Similarly to Devine, Sahami echoed that everyone in the workforce wants the opportunity for advancement and growth. Without that opportunity, retaining the individual becomes difficult.

“If they’re not seeing that growth and that projection of their career internally, it allows other companies to come in and recruit your talent and give them that title,” Sahami said.

However, Sahami doesn’t feel that skills necessarily take precedence over titles. “Skills represent the expertise that the candidate has and that a job requires,” she said. “The duties of the position should really be commensurate with the title.”

Title Transparency

Sahami recognizes that titles and the disparities between jobs require careful consideration in the hiring process, which begins with solidifying the job description. This serves as the basis for the entire search. Her colleague, Suzanne Harrison, senior corporate recruiter at ZipRecruiter, added that the interview process should include clearly defined parameters of responsibilities and duties. The recruiting team, hiring manager and interview team should clearly define the duties and speak with candidates on their background and skills to be sure they match with the job description.

“Regardless of title, the job description should be very, very clear,” Harrison said. The No. 1 reason for people leaving positions is that they’re not doing what they were hired to do, or the position is not what they expected, she added.

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Transparency in job descriptions extends beyond the company that’s hiring. With social media sites such as LinkedIn, candidates can include all duties performed on a job without a word limit as seen on traditional résumés, said Bill Schiemann, CEO of Metrus Group Inc., a business research and management consultancy in Somerville, New Jersey. LinkedIn, along with technology like Smashfly, can comb sites to search for qualifications to find people who are the best fit for jobs.

However, these lengthy job descriptions can become cumbersome to recruiters who seek candidates manually and without the help of search technology. Navigating this becomes a balancing act between having enough information that a recruiter finds the right candidate, while keeping information focused and to the point.

Titles of the Future

In emerging industries, Schiemann sees hierarchies having less importance, as there are fewer layers to increasingly flat organizations. Instead, there’s more emphasis on the speciality of workers and their knowledge than their titles.

Another trend is in people performing multiple jobs, meaning their titles can’t be as standardized as traditional roles. “When you don’t have it standardized, it kind of loses its meaning,” Schiemann said.

With titles that lack standardization, tension between workers could arise. If two people have the same title but perform dramatically different tasks or workloads, workers might feel they should be paid the same.

“Titles can give rise to perceived inequities when the jobs aren’t the same,” he said.

Thus, leadership should proceed with caution and shy away from assigning broad titles that don’t have much definition to them. Schiemann advised that leaders should look to other companies in their industry to see how they title employees, and use those titles where there is clear replicability within the company.

And although Schiemann thinks job titles will play an increasingly smaller role than in the past, “I don’t think it’s going to go away because people need shorthands,” Schiemann said.

Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email