Job Titles--Good or Bad?


Job titles convey hierarchy in a workplace. This has pluses and minuses. On the plus side, it creates status which has been tied to employee intent to stay with an organization. Titles also explain role; so they give people an idea of who to contact when they need help.
On the minus side, they inhibit creativity as decision making becomes more political. While several companies have experimented with removing titles or allowing their employees to make up whimsical titles, this is confusing to the "outside world" or sometimes damages the brand if someone creates a title that outstrips their actual expertise.
What would you suggest people do instead of conveying traditional job titles

Workplace Solutions
Leadership Development
Change Management
Ellen Raim
12 months ago

9 answers


Hi Ellen - I'm not entirely clear on what a direct output would be to this approach, but looking at your "pluses" it creates status which has been tied to employee intent to stay with an organization. Titles also explain role; so they give people an idea of who to contact when they need help.


I would say figure out a new way (considering modes or mediums) to give human resources these things that don't involve hierarchical labeling... which on the outset appears to be a TALL feat. I would go on to say, since you've already thought through the minuses, they inhibit creativity as decision making becomes more political and confusing to the "outside world" or sometimes damages the brand if someone creates a title that outstrips their actual expertise, use these as secondary priorities to optimize your new approach.

Based on these points, you would be seeking an innovation solution that is:

  1. Primary
    1. Ordinal
    2. Informative
  2. Secondary
    1. Flexible
    2. Diplomatic
    3. Sensical

My baseline understanding of titles is to distinguish between Owners, Decision Makers ("Leaders"), Managers and Individual Contributors; unfortunately, byproducts have evolved (mentioned in your minuses); making number 1 on our list (status/ordinal) probably the trickiest to figure out. But really, how do you categorize or describe a thing without comparing it to another? This is inherently divisive, which challenges a bigger question.

Maybe this manifests into a scoring system using AI with some input from Humans in the workplace? but...still dividing. Im not really sure, but in oder to make this type of change stick in a society a LARGE corporation would likely need to adopt/ implement; which is not super farfetched, this just means the math, science and desire will have to be there.

Remember, "making a puzzle is much like solving a puzzle" so you can consider yourself a good part of the way there! Looking forward to other perspectives.

Jahnia Sandford
12 months ago

There is no easy way to do away with job titles without redoing the entire business system. Some companies are doing away with command and control hierarchies and replacing that structure with a more open structure based on teams and projects.

Probably the best-known new structure, because Zappos adopted it, is the holacracy. People work to   deliver on accountabilities to a team. They don’t work based on hierarchical reporting. Under this structure, things are more fluid. A worker can work on multiple projects based on performing whatever tasks they are qualified to do rather than what their job description states.

The most prominent proponent of such a structure is Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos. While initially successful, the holacracy concept became confusing to some workers. They disliked a lack of continuous structure and felt unsure of how to perform their jobs. You can read all about it here.

In general, it seems to be a hit or miss effort based on employee acceptance of a non-rigid self-organizing structure.
Nonetheless it is popular in Europe. If you check it out you will find that there are numerous rules which make it, to me, more rigid than it should be for a self-organizing structure.

Tom Muscarello
12 months ago

In my view, job titles create an hierarchical environment where workers can differentiate responsibilities and accountability. In a situations where job titles are not assigned it become difficult to have your organogram as that will create and atmosphere of everybody where there is nobody.

Jimoh Abdulrafiu
12 months ago

As an addition (or an alternate) to job titles, wouldn't it be cool if we could be known for the outcomes we were responsible for? That way, everyone with a need (or support) would know who to turn to!

Mike Wittenstein
10 months ago
well said! - Ellen 10 months ago

Job titles also have the downside of limiting individuals ("not in my job title, I'm afraid").

I've never been too worried about job titles. If people use the prefix 'bloody good' in front of my job title, I'm must be doing Ok.

David Cottrell
5 months ago
It's the person, not the title that matters. In small companies, employees get to know each other pretty well during the normal day-to-day activities. In larger teams and companies, it becomes everyone's responsibility to get to know their colleagues. What we miss from making assumptions based on titles needs to be made up for by reaching out to others to get to know them. Is that healthy? Yes!! - Mike 5 months ago
David Cottrell, your answer made me smile. thanks - Ellen 5 months ago
Ellen Raim, if I can bring a little sunshine into the day, I'm happy. Regards - David 5 months ago

I think it depends on work and industry. In a classical corporate environment with big enterprise problem comes when "Job Role" and "Job Title" are not aligned. For example in a lot of US enterprises ( Including top banks and insurance companies) you see people with titles "AVP- Associate Vice President" but what their actual role is either "Programmers" or "Testers" etc, I think the title gives a social label and companies give you that as part of retention.

Similarly few titles like "Director", "Senior Director" doesn't indicate what exactly their meaning in operations in many organizations. Sometimes, a Director is a one man army.

I think this problem is more with bigger companies where they have to find ways to retain people. With high alteration rate and unified appraise policies, these big enterprises come with such ideas.

In small medium companies, people know you by your role anyway. "Joe is the guy who handles servers - " No matter if he is a "Director of Infrastructure", "Solution Architect" or the "Server Guy".

Hitesh Mathpal
5 months ago

Hitesh MathpalDavid CottrellTom Muscarello Mike WittensteinJahnia Sandford

I have another question as . follow up.
In small companies, sometimes titles are handed out as a way to show rewards to employees. But then you end up with title inflation.
what is a way to show meaningful reward to employees in a small company without handing out high sounding titles?

Ellen Raim
5 months ago
In my opinion, titles should describe the primary outcomes you are responsible for. A title is a designation, not a reward. - Mike 5 months ago
Ellen Raim Some years ago salespeople became 'sales executives' and a few years after that they morphed into 'account managers'. The job was essentially the same. Doling out 'director' titles like candy backfires. I suggest that the weight leadership puts upon the words and actions of employees shows to the rest of the company the standing that an individual has. This is a visible reward. - David 5 months ago

Thanks Ellen Raim

I think titles come (or play major impact) in small companies in two stages -
A) They are turning big.
B) They don't know how to reward employees. 

Reward should always be visible and with a value. I would even argue if one can quantify the reward is always good ( However, its a very complicated thing in HR)

Working in some startups and small companies as well as 100K+ people company, I found that few things that retain people are - 

Money first
Money is important. I think one problem with big companies is "Universal Appraisal System". They rank you in the categories of A, B, C ( or ratings) and decide your money/bonus accordingly. With MNCs, it's even worst. They add some factors ( Business Unit Performance, Global Market etc) and make your hike like a peanut. In small companies - you have the opportunity to rate individual as an individual. Your hike should plan to be accordingly. 
I remember working for a startup in 2007, our CEO put a reward plan for us. He called this a retention bonus of say $X thousand. But the condition was we had to stay in the company for one month and we had to achieve certain milestones. If we achieve those milestones in 1 year, that money is ours. I don't know if that was the best plan but it certainly worked for me and my team. This kind of ideas should be implemented. But I also know this is only possible with small companies.

Learning opportunities
People want to continuously learn new things for their broader career goals. Small companies easily provide that environment. I can talk about software companies. In big companies, we find people stuck in one project or technology for a long time. In small companies its never the case. You need to wear multiple hats. You keep learning new things since there are not more people to fill the job. 
So, one reward can be for employees to help them learn more. More training programs, professional certificates etc. The interesting part is these learning can be anything. I know a small company who set $1000 for each employee to learn anything other than work every year. People even took swimming lessons with that money. Well, you can reward with such learning offers.

Sense of ownership
What you build, or the project you lead - you are the owner of the project. This sense of ownership is very important for retention. There are various ways to reward a sense of ownership - one is recolonization. Featuring in company letters, Facebook page, and websites etc.  

Part of decision making process
A direct communication with employee and ask them to take the part some decision process also helps. In small companies you do a lot of change quite often. To reward employee, he/she can be the part of some decision process with top management ( of course which are not sensitive). These kind of things make you feel connected with the company.

Hitesh Mathpal
5 months ago

Focus on expertise and value:

Reduce emphasis on hierarchy (use terms like specialist, expert, lead.)

Typically, people want to understand the other person's ability to make things happen/approve/fix. If the individual can do that, title matters less.

Employees care about what the title signals to other future employers and colleagues--largely am I "at that level" and getting recongized.

Wendy Harrington
5 months ago
very interesting wendy--thank you - Ellen 5 months ago

Have some input?