Should You Let Employees Choose Their Own Job Titles?

By
Mona Bushnell
,
business.com writer
|
Jan 15, 2020
Image Credit: fizkes / Getty Images

Create relevant job titles for roles in your business, attract and retain top talent, and foster a positive company culture.

  • Job titles are important because they have massive social implications. Some employees might accept a job that pays a little less but has a more impressive title.
  • Inflated job titles designed to reward loyal employees may become problematic when the business grows and it's time to bring staff on board who actually fit those titles.
  • Creative job titles are fun but may cause confusion in terms of seniority, and they may also make it more difficult for employees when applying for jobs at other companies.

Job titles are important, not just during the job search or recruitment process, but also for day-to-day business. The way jobs are titled impacts employee morale and inspires either a sense of responsibility and pride or feelings of inadequacy and lack of importance. However, it's a delicate balancing act. If you over-title your employees, it may result in overblown egos and poor viability in the broader job market, which isn't a good long-term play.

When it comes to selecting job titles, thinking through all of your options can help you make a strategic decision that elevates and supports the type of business you want to run.

Should you let employees choose their own job titles?

Allowing employees to choose their own job titles is a controversial practice, but some business owners feel it engenders a sense of autonomy and pride, and enhances company culture. Especially creative titles can also improve employee morale and promote team cohesion.

Before turning over job title creation to your employees, ask yourself these questions:

Do your employees want to choose their own job titles?

If you search around online, you'll see that quite a lot of people are overwhelmed by the task of choosing their own job titles. It might not be a selling point for employees to choose their job titles themselves, but rather an additional task, from the perspective of your employees. 

How will you help your employees choose job titles?

If you're going to allow employees to select their own job titles, consider providing them with some guidelines and support. It may be helpful to meet with your human resources representative, as well as department managers, for their input and concerns. Creating a guide, or at least outlining some basic do's and don'ts, may save you trouble down the line.

Downsides to letting employees choose their own job titles

Asking employees to select their own job titles can result in over-titling. That is, overblown titles when compared to the tasks performed. This happens chronically in small businesses, even those that don't let employees choose their job titles. Here's how it happens so you can avoid it:

A company has extremely limited staff starting out and can only offer limited salaries, so, naturally, there's lots of turnover. Gradually, a few loyal employees take on more responsibilities, and the owners feel indebted to them. To show them that they are appreciated, loyal employees are given raises and/or new titles frequently, often more frequently than they would in a more established company. Suddenly, someone who helps manage an Excel spreadsheet or two is the CFO, the person who manages employee scheduling is the COO, and the most tech-savvy person in the room becomes the CTO by default. The problem with this is that CFO, COO, and CTO are real positions that require (at a minimum) years of professional expertise, and, in many cases, specialized degrees or training; so in reality, the company doesn't have a CFO, COO, or CTO, but on paper (and in salaries), those positions are filled.

As the business grows, the owners are likely to realize they need a real CFO, COO, and CTO, and at that point, the situation is fraught; the business owner either has to hire more people to do the real C-suite work without the title (a hard sell), have them tag-team it with existing employees and share the title (which is likely to make the newer hire angry, since they will have far more expertise but be titled the same), or demote the longtime loyal employees.

Avoiding this trap is easy: Do not over-title your employees or allow them to over-title themselves. It doesn't help them or you in the long term – a "CFO" who has no real business or math acumen is never going to find a job as a CFO elsewhere, because they aren't really a CFO. It's better to give bonuses and other perks (flex time, additional days off, free gym membership) to loyal employees than to temporarily stroke their egos through overblown titles.

How creative should I be with employee job titles?

It depends on your business. Highly creative industries or those who interact with children are more likely to have creative job titles. For example, Disney character performers at theme parks are called "cast members," which is a little more appealing than "staff." Getting a little creative can be a good thing in a case like this, but it's important to think about the full picture. The potential downsides to creative job titles may include a less-clear business structure and hierarchy.

It's intuitive, for example, that a senior analyst is more experienced than a junior analyst, but the titles data guru and data wizard (while entertaining) are not clear in terms of seniority. An outside consultant or new hire will not inherently know which person is the more senior analyst and will find themselves in the uncomfortable position of asking. For a tiny company, this might not be problematic, but it's good to think about long-term implications.

If you want your business to eventually employ more people and grow, and possibly even expand to other locations or markets, simplicity may be more sustainable than creativity when it comes to job titles. Overly quirky job titles also cause problems for employees who apply for jobs at other companies; when there are stacks of resumes for a hiring manager to weed through for one job, it might not be advantageous to have a job title that requires ample explanation.

Why do job titles matter?

Job titles matter for a few reasons. First, employees care about what their job title is because it has massive social implications. When people ask, "What do you do?" they don't want to know about your hobbies, they want to know what your job is. Some employees may even be willing to choose a job that pays a little less but has a more impressive title over a job that pays a little more but has a less impressive title.  

Another reason job titles matter is for attracting the right talent. Most job hunters do their searching online via social media or job sites, and a job title can either attract them to your job post or ensure they never see it at all. Because of this, it is best to title your open jobs in the clearest, best-practice way possible.

Both over and under specificity can be problematic; for example, an experienced project manager may be unlikely to apply to a job titled simply "manager," because "manager" can mean many things in different industries. However, they may also be unlikely to apply to a job titled "AI software project management specialist," even if the job tasks described are relatively general project management skills. Thus, it's best to select job titles that are broadly understood, descriptive enough to be found, but not so specific that many qualified applicants will be too intimidated to apply.

How to choose job titles that match job responsibilities in your business

As with anything, it's smart to define a process for creating job titles in your business so there is a level of consistency that can be scaled with ease. If you are uncertain about how to title a job, it may be beneficial to start with the job description instead. Outlining the tasks that you expect the employee to perform (and the types of tools they will be required to use) first may give you greater clarity on the scope of the job.

Additionally, you can use your written job description to work backward toward a job title. By searching the types of job titles you think apply to your open position and comparing the descriptions posted to your own, you can inch closer to finding the ideal job title for the role you're trying to fill. It is best, however, to only compare your job description to those posted by established, reputable companies, not an unknown startup.

This method can also help you determine the amount of experience you want your new hire to have; you might begin the process thinking someone with about 10 years of experience and a master's degree is the ideal fit and end it convinced that a bachelor's and five years' work experience is ample. And, of course, this could add up to massive savings in terms of salary. 

Another option is to reach out to a recruiter and ask them for their advice. Recruiters deal with job descriptions and job posts every day, and they may be willing to consult with you to not only help you come up with job titles but also find qualified candidates.  

How to optimize job titles and job descriptions

There's no single route to creating job titles and job descriptions that succeed in attracting quality applicants, but regardless of how you go about the process, it's smart to keep notes. In addition to noting the way you chose the job title and wrote the job description, note the overall quality level of applicants to the job. If you're getting plenty of resumes with the right level of work experience and cover letters that reflect a solid understanding of the job and company culture, your method was effective and should be replicated for future job openings.

If you're not getting the volume or quality of job seekers you require to fill the position, you might need to revise your entire job posting, including the job title and description. Job boards use search technology to help job seekers find jobs that match their expertise, so using terms in the way they are broadly understood is key. This is part of why best-practice job titling is a good idea for small businesses that have less name recognition than bigger corporations that are using the same job boards. 

Another reason you might not be getting as many bites as you'd like could have to do with compensation and company culture. It's well documented that modern workers want excellent work-life balance in addition to competitive pay. Offering flexible schedules and the ability to work remotely might sweeten the deal for job seekers, even without increasing the pay.

Additionally, it's worth looking at the tone and general feel of your job posting. Posts that include lots of absolutes (words like "only," "never" and "must"), instructions in all caps, too many job responsibilities that span too many areas of expertise, typos and misspellings, and a generally negative tone turn off qualified job seekers. Remember, your post on job boards is meant to attract talent to your business, not admonish unqualified applicants or react against negative experiences with previous employees.

Bottom line

The main takeaways here are that it's better to be mainstream with job titles and choose them with care, be clear about tasks and job descriptions, and think outside the box when it comes to offering nonmonetary perks.

Keeping track of how you do things (and how effective or ineffective your methods are) will help you gradually hone a great system for creating job titles and job postings, and not only attract but retain the talent you need to propel your business to the next level.

Mona Bushnell
Mona Bushnell
Mona Bushnell is a Philadelphia-based staff writer for business.com and Business News Daily. She has a B.A. in writing, literature, and publishing from Emerson College and has previously worked as an IT technician, a copywriter, a software administrator, a scheduling manager, and an editorial writer. Mona began freelance writing full time in 2014 and joined the Business News Daily/business.com team in 2017. She covers business and technology.
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