Noblis does away with traditional job titles to improve career development

When contracting and research firm Noblis decided to do away with traditional job titles and replace them with numbered “career bands,” many employees had one simple question.

“There was a little bit of concern of, ‘What do I put on my business card?’” said Madeline Williams, a Noblis staffer.

The business card conundrum was just one of many details that the Falls Church-based company had to consider as it worked to build a new human resources strategy aimed at improving career development pathways for workers and increasing transparency about staffing decisions.

“We’ve really tried to give them a sense of being in the driver’s seat of their careers,” said Amy Rivera, a Noblis staffer who played a key role in implementing the strategy.

Noblis’s organizational structure is now comprised of eight bands. Band one is made up of entry-level staffers; band eight contains the most senior leaders. Each level comes with a list of expectations and competencies across four categories: technical work, client engagement, project management and personal development. To be considered for advancement, one must demonstrate a mastery of the skills associated with his or her current band.

Within each level, a person has wide room for movement and can play a variety of different roles.

For example, “You may be at a career band level for three years, but you may be a project manager for six months. Then you may become a capture manager [or someone who goes after new business] for a while,” said Allison Mechalske, another staffer who has been at the center of the strategy.

Roles are not strictly bound by levels. Someone in band three, four or five could act as a project manager, depending on the scope and responsibility of that particular project.

The company hopes this framework will encourage staffers to widen their skill sets.

“What we don’t want to do is just focus on the upward development. We want to focus on broadening development,” Mechalske said.

Noblis said the career band approach has helped it stay on top of a problem Mechalske called “level creep,” in which people are elevated to positions for which there is no business need to support.

“Given the competitive nature of government contracting these days, we need to make sure we’re not elevating people’s level based on tenure,” Mechalske said.

With its clear delineation of skills required for each band, the new system makes it difficult for someone to be promoted just for the sake of it.

The band structure is also designed to help ensure that promotions are awarded as soon as they are deserved, instead of when they’re overdue.

“We wanted to make sure the promotions were meaningful to people, that they weren’t coming after somebody was already doing the job,” Rivera said.

Though Noblis says its employees have embraced the shift, these issues can sometimes make for a tough sell to employees when companies transform their hierarchies. Workers sometimes worry that their pay or prominence might be jeopardized during the shake-up.

Imperfections in the promotion system were not the primary impetus for Noblis to overhaul its system.

The organization, a nonprofit that has long worked on science, technology and infrastructure issues for the government, was shifting its business model to put increased emphasis on competitive bid work. That change, Noblis said, would require it to more clearly explain to staffers how their roles were being redefined.

And through internal employee surveys, the company had been hearing that many workers were not sure about what was expected of them.

“There wasn’t a clear sense that people knew what they needed to do in their current jobs,” Mechalske said. “It was just kind of floating around.”

Williams said the new approach has helped guide her career development efforts.

“All the different expectations are a lot more clear and easier to follow,” Williams said. “I can look at that list and see, what are the things that I’m doing really well? What are the things I’m not doing?”

Though Noblis chose on its own to shake up its organizational structure, some other companies have had to do so out of necessity. Experts say that the recent business climate has prompted changes to the status quo in some corporate hierarchies.

Amid the recession and tepid recovery, many companies have removed some layers of management as part of an effort to reduce head count. This means there are fewer levels to ascend, and thus more-limited opportunities for promotion.

Brian Kropp, managing director at Arlington-based corporate research firm CEB, said his firm found that among Fortune 1000 companies, the number of levels within an organization decreased by 18 percent between 2007 and 2012.

Given that situation, a structure such as Noblis’s — with decoupled levels and titles — can be useful, said Ravin Jesuthasan, global practice leader for talent management at human resource consulting firm Towers Watson.

“It lets companies keep increasing your pay and sending you all the right messages without moving you up a band,”Jesuthasan said.

Experts also say that companies are facing a different workplace culture, in which there’s a preference for career paths that look more like matrices or webs than ladders.

“The ability to move sideways, from an employee perspective, it keeps the growth going,” Jesuthasan said. “You have a much broader base of experience and skills in order to move up in the higher levels of the organization.”

Noblis’s new strategy officially began in October. Before that, a small group of its 660 employees spent six months vetting the model and seeking feedback from executives, low-level staffers and everyone in between.

“It was a fine-tooth comb with all of our stakeholders, because we wanted to have a model that was built by Noblis for Noblis,” Rivera said.

The small group also led a major communication effort before the launch so that the entire staff was well-prepared for the change. During training sessions, employees received information about the brass tacks of the initiative, including a solution to the business card quandary: Cards should include a title that reflects the terminology a client would use to describe one’s position. Staffers were encouraged to talk to a manager to come up with this label.

Williams, who is in band three, said she hasn’t gotten around to ordering new cards since the switch, but that she’d probably identify herself as a project manager.

Now, more than five months into the program, “We are on the upside of the curve in terms of acceptance, energy, engagement,” Rivera said.

The willingness to adapt to the changes, she said, was borne out of the inclusiveness of the development process.

“Everyone knew the model’s nuts and bolts and supported it because they were part of developing it,” Rivera said.

Even as Noblis says it has found its footing with its new system, experts say that nontraditional workplace structures can come with unique challenges.

These setups can complicate the process of salary bench marking, in which compensation professionals determine a job’s pay based on the amount offered for similar work at other organizations.

As a result, “I have to do kind of a back-room comparison of the jobs and roles,” to figure out fair compensation, said Karen Vujtech, a compensation expert for the Society for Human Resource Management.

Noblis said it did not find salary bench marking especially difficult because it could compare the descriptions of the career bands to those of jobs at outside firms.

Working in an organization without titles can also pose difficulties if an employee strikes out to look for a new job.

“Losing the title creates a really tough thing to explain on a résumé,” Kropp said.

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economics news.
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