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What's in a Name? How to Choose the Most Appropriate Job Title

By Business.com Editorial Staff
Business.com / Last Modified: June 1, 2018
Image credit: ilikestudio/Shutterstock

The Business.com community asked what to do about job titles when you or your employees wear many hats. We found answers.

When starting a new business, you're likely to wear many different hats. You might need to be the IT professional, human resources expert, CEO and accountant all rolled into one. Then you're left asking, "What should I tell people I do exactly?" It's a common question, and one asked by Business.com community member Zoe Brown. So, we went seeking answers.

There is no ideal, one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Many people will tell you that job titles don't matter, particularly at a startup, but they do, and research backs this up.

In their simplest form, job titles define employee roles, but according to numerous studies, they do much more than that. The right job title – whether it's impressive, inspirational, powerful or plain fun – can attract top talent, bestow social status, influence behavior, reduce stress, decrease burnout, improve employee satisfaction and commitment, and affirm an employee's identity within the office hierarchy.

Given the importance titles can play, it's worth taking the time to develop a thoughtful strategy for naming positions and assigning titles regardless of the size of your operation. This only gets trickier when determining the title for a position that encompasses multiple roles and responsibilities.

Here are a few points to consider when trying to select accurate job titles that incorporate the many hats worn by your employees.

1. Develop a protocol.

Although every business is different and may use titles in distinct ways and to meet unique needs, it's important to develop a system for generating titles early on in an organization's life. Being consistent with the way titles are formed and handed out helps to avoid confusion and disparities, especially among employees who hold multiple roles and those who may have similar responsibilities but end up with different titles. 

Marielle Smith, vice president of People at GoodHire, advises asking the following questions when developing titles: 

  • Does the title make it easy to interpret the person's role at the company?
  • Does the title reflect the person's area of expertise, level of experience and seniority?
  • What impact will the title have on a person's career trajectory?
  • Will the title be taken seriously by others?
  • Will the title attract top talent or turn them off?

By honestly answering these questions, business leaders can create a framework for titles that is uniform and responsive to the specific needs of their organization, while also keeping employees' career development as the central focus.

2. Focus on skills and expertise.

When employees have multiple responsibilities in an organization but the majority of their day-to-day functions fall within one particular department, it makes sense to link their title to that specific area of the business.

"Start with an understanding of what [employees] do most often and what the most critical aspects of their position are," said Stephanie Troiano, an executive recruiter with The Hire Talent. "Think ... first in general terms in order to come up with an umbrella title or department that they can fall into. The idea is to try and categorize their duties and position broadly, then narrow down from there." 

In more ambiguous situations, many employers are moving toward defining the broader roles and specialized skills employees need to accomplish their job instead of creating two-word job titles.

"Roles are defined around the work, unlike titles that are defined around people, and people can fill several roles," said Victoria Ivanova, who handles marketing and communications for Impossible.

Ivanova's own workplace has adapted this model by analyzing the roles within the company and establishing detailed descriptions of responsibilities for each role.

"We find this approach better than job titles, at least for small companies and startups, because a job title can be restrictive for a person who holds it," said Ivanova. "But once you have roles in place, team members feel more free to assume and leave roles, and their performance is measured by how well they follow the responsibilities within the roles." 

3. Let employees name their own job.

When struggling to find the perfect title for the employee who does it all, businesses can take the pressure off by realizing that the decision doesn't have to be solely their own. Businesses can empower employees to select their own job titles. After employees have been in a role for a trial period and know all that the position involves, an employer may encourage them to name their own job, within the agreed-upon parameters.

"We have found great success in letting our employees figure out what kind of job title they would like to have and present us with their name choice and reasoning behind it," said Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation.com. "Then, we decide if it is a fit for them or not." 

Having a say in their title gives employees a sense of autonomy and validation and leaves them feeling that they are part of a forward-thinking company.

4. Have fun, but think long-term.

When an employee does it all, it may be tempting to come up with a fun and whimsical title that encompasses the spirit, if not the content, of their job. While there is a time and place for unique and creative titles – Disney employs "imagineers," and Microsoft has a galactic viceroy of research excellence in the office – it's important to consider how these titles will be perceived outside the company and translate to other workplaces.

"A common problem lies in creating positions and titles that are not present anywhere else," said Jesse Harrison, CEO of Employee Justice Legal Team. "Unique titles may be self-empowering, but other clients, companies and potential recruiters may be dubious. A job title that does not accurately convey the person's responsibilities can be a hindrance."

For example, calling someone a crisis ninja or in-house philosopher raises questions rather than provides answers about what the title-holder actually does. 

Companies must consider whether the titles they create will reflect well on the company now and in the future, added Smith. "As the company matures, they will want to attract top talent, and senior talent often want titles that reflect their hierarchy within the company, or they'll find the title and position they want somewhere else." 

One way to address this is to create imaginative, inspirational titles to use internally, but opt for more traditional titles when dealing with outside entities.

5. Avoid title inflation.

All of your employees are critical, especially if you are a small operation, and you want their titles to carry the weight of their value. But it's bad business to have five vice presidents in a company of six people just so that everyone feels good. Companies should steer clear of title inflation, even when trying to recognize the multidimensional roles of staff.

Though it's cheaper to hand out fancy titles than to give out raises, there are often unintended consequences when titles are doled out with ease. Title inflation can lead to tension among colleagues and employees who suddenly feel that their old responsibilities are beneath their new titles.

"A job title may spark someone's sense of self-importance; he may use it to try and escape from duties he considers below him," said Harrison. "In a small business where many people share responsibilities, this can lead to an imbalanced workload and dissent amongst workers."

Often the best policy is to keep it simple and pass over the impressive-sounding titles in favor of solid ones that speak directly to the needs and goals of your organization.

"After all, it's about what we do and contribute, not what our title says," said Troiano. 

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