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Of Job Titles and Jokes

Rock star is one of the more extreme job titles out there

Forget what’s in a name. What’s in a job title? Recently there’s been a bit of a war going; a war of words – about words. On one side are the traditionalists who prefer conventional-sounding job titles; on the other are those who advocate more “creative” job titles, which can include terms such as “Guru”, “Rock Star”, “Ninja”, “Mastermind”, “Wizard”, and even “Jedi” (despite copyright infringement). So who’s right? Are the traditionalists rational, no-nonsense straight-talkers, or fastidious old fuddy-duddies? Are the creative types energetic, cutting-edge iconoclasts, or juvenile, arrogant upstarts? Both sides have their points, but their debate shines a light on some larger issues when it comes to assigning job titles to employees.

A job by any other title would sound as sweet…Or would it?

Starbucks has its Baristas, Apple has its Geniuses, and Best Buy has its Geeks. And sure, while “Geniuses” and “Geeks”, and most certainly “Ninjas” and “Rock Stars”, are among the more recent and extreme examples of creative job titling, the practice is hardly new. For more than six decades now, Disney has been describing each member of its design and development team as an “Imagineer” – a term that was actually invented more than seven decades ago by Alcoa, which, as the world’s third-largest aluminum producer, wins the prize for Company Least Likely to Coin a Whimsical Job Title Associated with the Phrase Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah. Even a January 1961 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette muses about a time when lawyers preferred to refer to themselves as “attorneys-at-law”, janitors became “custodians”, and when the plumbing sector campaigned to be called “hydromechanics”. Relatively recent and less extreme examples of transformed job titles include “salesperson” into “customer service representative” and “secretary” into “administrative assistant”.

Sometimes, the new name of an old job is meant to more clearly convey that job’s actual duties, especially when those duties – and hence the job – have changed over time. For instance, although “custodians” perform the same tasks “janitors” did, it can be argued that the role of administrative assistant is essentially a new job, one that, due to the incorporation of increasingly cerebral tasks, has evolved from its progenitor, the secretary, not unlike the way “apothecary” was replaced by “pharmacist” or “antiquarian” became “archeologist”. (Well, okay. Those took a bit longer.) But, as is argued in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, a job title transformation tends to occur when there’s an effort to elevate the status associated with that job. And, believe it or not, that’s exactly why job titles like “Genius”, “Geek”, “Jedi”, and “Mastermind” exist too. They sound exciting, unique, and pop culture-savvy and are meant to make the employee feel exactly those things about themselves. And it’s that boost in confidence that many argue results in greater employee morale, retention, and productivity.

However, while there may be some truth to this for some individuals, there are a couple of points to ponder. First, as is also discussed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, many shiny new job titles are bound to lose their lustre over time, meaning that, unless the job itself becomes more sophisticated, the prestige associated with its name is fleeting at best; second, some employees simply won’t buy into the semantics. In fact, they may find the use of more colourful job titles patronizing and/or unprofessional – a view that they also realize many potential future employers might share.

These points bring us to some more serious issues that need to be considered when creating and/or changing job titles.

Of pseudonyms and pseudo-promotions

In recent years, particularly after the economic crash of 2008, there has been a lot of talk about employees receiving prestigious-sounding job titles in lieu of additional duties or compensation. There are even instances in which employees have received new job titles with new responsibilities, and not an extra penny in wages. In fact, the internet is awash in advice telling employees to accept or even ask for better titles instead of actual promotions or raises, particularly if their employer can’t afford to do either.

Indeed, these practices present advantages to both the employer and the employee. But, unfortunately, they run afoul of each other. While employers think they can enjoy higher talent retention and productivity for the price of printing a few new business cards, employees enjoy greater attention from other organizations willing to provide them with the same, or even better, job titles – not to mention the actual authority and money to go with them.

It’s also important to remember that there can be serious legal consequences for employers who create major discrepancies between what they call their employees and what they pay them. An employee may have been made a manager in title only, but that courtesy can quickly become a curse should that employee come looking for lost wages one day.

Brevity is the soul of wit – not “witty” job titles

So, are there best practices for coming up with job titles? Well, it really depends. As unusual as “Barista” “Genius” or “Geek” may have sounded when they were introduced, their inventors, Starbucks, Apple, and Best Buy, certainly aren’t complaining. Part of why these titles work has a lot to do with brand. Starbucks sells a sophisticated, comfortable coffeehouse  experience in sharp juxtaposition to its competitors’ fast-food models, so of course its servers are called “Baristas”. What else would they be? “Coffee Makers”? “Waiters”? Don’t be silly. Everyone knows waiters don’t listen to Norah Jones. Likewise, who doesn’t associate the legacy of Steve Jobs with “genius”? And if you need your tablet fixed, isn’t it comforting to know it’s in the hands of a geek? Or better yet, a fellow geek? (“Geek”, by the way, has a more positive connotation today. The ‘80s are over.)

But what if you’re not a technology powerhouse or the largest coffee chain on Earth? Well then it’s probably best to stick to the following tips when developing job titles for your workforce:

  • Have the job title describe the job

    If you’re part of a large and/or growing organization, more and more people, both inside and outside of it, will need to quickly grasp what other people do. If a job title is too vague – and that includes “Ninja” – it can cause confusion among your own employees as well as among current and potential clients. 

  • Denote hierarchical rank

    Once more, this tip is beneficial for people both inside and outside of your organization. If your reporting structure is reflected in your employees’ job titles, it’s easier for them to understand whom outranks whom and it’s easier for clients to escalate certain issues when necessary.

  • Keep in mind how search engines work

    Remember that before you can hire people, they have to apply first. If the job descriptions you post on the internet are too vague or eccentric, your organization could be all but invisible to the talent that’s out there. Keep your job titles concise, descriptive, and inclusive of the most relevant keywords people look for on Google and other search engines.

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