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Job titles: What’s in a name?

June 1, 2015

By Diana Moroney, SPHR® Senior Human Resources Consultant

It’s an age-old question: do employees really care what their job title is? Does a higher level title provide the automatic perception of prestige? Are people motivated by a promotional title? Or was Shakespeare’s Juliet correct when she said “…a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”? In other words, is what matters what something is or does and not what it’s called?

What is in a job title? As you may have gathered, it depends who you ask.

When determining what will work for your organization, one consideration should be determining what you are trying to convey to your customers and potential customers. If a client relations consultant handed you a business card with the job title “Senior Vice President of Amazing People,” you may get a good laugh, you may be intrigued, or you may not take that person seriously as a business person.

To customers and potential customers, a title can express a general hierarchy within your company. If a business card bears the title of CEO, people generally assume they are dealing with the decision maker.

In different industries, job titles mean different things.  Conduct your research specifically within the industry you’re titling.  For example, avoid using hotel industry titles to title an employee working in the retail industry. When researching, one size does not typically fit all.

Just as a title can convey a general hierarchy to your customers and potential customers, the same is true internally. Consider what you are trying to convey to your employees as well. What internal culture are you trying to communicate?  Entertaining, fun-loving, and free-spirited, or more conservative and traditional? Regardless of your approach, consistency is key. Title hierarchy that differs greatly from department to department can be confusing and send the wrong message to employees. Conversely, accurate and consistent titles can help illustrate to employees where they fall within an organization, providing clear definition of their job in relationship to others, whether it be linear, at a higher level, or subordinate, as well as who they can go to with work issues.

So, what do your employees think about the title they have and are they driven to obtain a higher level title? Again, it depends who you ask. Some employees do not place a high value on job titles and are not motivated by that. Conversely, some employees truly take pride in their title, and a promotion to a higher level title could mean a lot more to them than a pay raise at the same title.

Once titles are established, position descriptions should be reviewed to ensure they accurately reflect the requirements of the job and level of the title. Are there 20 vice presidents in your company?  If so, are job duties the same or do they differ?  If it’s the latter, each requires a separate position description.

Even though compensation can be based on many factors such as seniority, performance, production goals, etc., if your titles correctly correspond with your position descriptions, they can be used as another measurement of determining compensation. Wage scales can more easily be developed by categorizing similar level titles. Also, if your position descriptions accurately reflect their titles, they can be used during performance reviews. If employees are meeting and/or exceeding those expectations, they may deserve a title change. On the contrary, if an employee is not meeting those expectations, it’s an easy reference for managers to use to start conversation on getting the employee back on track, and depending on the circumstance, implementing employee discipline.

Before promoting an employee to a new title, speak to them in depth about what accompanies the title change, including duties, reporting relationships and benefits changes, if applicable. The change could be seen as a positive challenge to some employees and scary or intimidating to others. Remember, the best employee on your team doesn’t always make the best manager.

Regardless of trends for diverse or creative titles, as described earlier, in establishing titles your company culture should be taken into account. Complicated titles, titles that don’t fit the culture and even multiple titles can actually be counterproductive rather than motivating. Although a title certainly doesn’t encompass a person’s entire list of job duties, it should be an accurate portrayal of what they do in general terms and possibly where they’re at in their career with your organization. When someone asks your employee, “What’s your job?”, the answer should come easily and the employee should feel it reflects what they do.

If your job titles are true to the job they describe, they will be communicating what you intend to communicate to your employees and customers. The right job titles provide direction to your customers and position identification and pride to your employees.

For more information or assistance, call 888-556-0123, email hrconsulting@hkpayroll.com  or submit our online form.

Copyright © 2011 Honkamp Krueger & Co., P.C. All Rights Reserved.

This article was previously published in the Tri-State Business Times.

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