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What’s in a Job Title?

As far as job titles go, the Director of Tax Education and Enlightenment has a certain ring to it.  It sounds like the sort of role that demands in depth knowledge of the works of Voltaire alongside every tax system the world over.  Far from being a made up job title, this role exists with responsibilities, reporting lines and a salary to go with it.  Besides providing a nearly inexhaustible means of starting conversations at conferences and dinner parties, does a job title mean anything at all to your career?  Many of us see job titles as providing easily understandable reference points when mapping out our future careers.  If I want to retire as the Director of Tax Education and Enlightenment, then I will need to progress up the career ladder in a steady fashion and job titles will help me decide which roles will take me where I want to go.  Or will it?  Facile though this question may seem, job titles and their importance are issues that come up time and time again in recruitment.

Little wonder why this issue muddies the waters as it does.  These days, you can find genuine vacancies advertising roles such as:  Sandwich Artist, JavaScript Ninja or Chief Creative Enlightened Officer.  The Economist refers to this phenomenon as panflation and while historically American companies were more likely to have” Directors of First Impressions” manning the reception desk, more and more UK and European companies are succumbing to panflation’s allure.  After all, creating a fancy job title costs much less than pay rises or promotions and if that keeps staff happy, so much the better.  Between 2005 – 2009 Linkedin members with Vice President in their title grew 426% faster than membership overall.

Surely employers up-titling a job is a problem for the employer not the job seeker?  Most of us are savvy enough to realise a Vice President in a three person start-up company won’t have anything like the same responsibilities as a Vice President in a company with 300 employees.  The glut of titles like Vice President in the market makes it difficult to learn what the going rate for someone with your particular background should be.  If you are someone who wants to retire as a Chief Risk Officer of a tier 1 bank, what kinds of roles should you be considering next?  Vice President?  Assistant Vice President?  Manager?  Although job titles may roughly translate across an industry, the internal hierarchy of businesses will be influenced by the size and focus of that organisation.   A smaller, boutique firm is unlikely to have the same tiered internal hierarchy as that of a multinational company – what looks like a horizontal move on paper isn’t necessarily a career dead end.

To paraphrase CBS’ Evil HR Lady: a job title is irrelevant, what matters is what the role does. Titles provide scant detail on the sum of responsibilities that fall under that role.  Anyone external to the company will not be able to tell at first glance whether a Director of Tax Education and Enlightenment is how that company refers to its Tax Advisory Service or whether it is the title for a Senior Trainer in Learning and Development.  By shifting the focus of attention to the responsibilities of the role, you will get a much clearer picture of where the role can take you and whether it is the right one for you.   Moving from a Vice President role in one company to an Associate role in another may seem like a retrograde step, but by taking in to consideration the content of the role and the culture of the organisation you may find that the Associate role provides the crucial experience you need to fast track your career.

©2014 Jane Christie