By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 17, 2006
Chief something or other. Senior blah blah blah. Director for the whatever region. Vice president of lots of stuff.
It used to be much more common that titles meant the same thing across industries. You knew where a vice president stood. Or a director. But now we've got titles for everything, and some things that don't really exist. Just spend a few more years on the job and watch that title grow.
How many times have you realized you couldn't identify someone from his many-worded-title?
The dot-com boom was the start of major title creativity for many workplaces. No longer were there human resource directors. Instead: chief people officers. Steve Jobs called himself chief know-it-all. And workers at Wal-Mart and other stores were no longer employees, but rather associates.
Lee Burbage does not consider titles when looking at résumés. (He doesn't care what he's called unless he needs someone to call him back -- and then he is the vice president of human resources for Alexandria-based Motley Fool.) It's the job description that matters, he said. If he receives a résumé from someone at AOL and needs to figure out what a title actually means, he will seek out a former AOL employee.
"The only thing a title can tell me is a sense of progression," he said.
During the dot-com boom, Motley Fool was one of those companies that encouraged people to make up their own creative titles. In general, people now aren't titled at the investment advisory company. When someone gets a promotion, the company announces the new duties, no title included. "The only time it comes into play is: If you're trying to write a résumé, you get a good sense of what level you are," he said. (If you e-mail Burbage, you may get a response that says "human resources/reality star.")
So why all the title confusion? A decade ago, there was a set group of titles, said Nels Olson, an executive recruiter with Korn/Ferry International (official title: senior client partner and sector leader, external affairs practice). But "in an economy where the job market's tight and we're seeing war for talent everywhere increasing, companies are doing everything they can to retain the best and brightest," he said. "One way to do that is giving them a more senior title."
According to a recent Korn/Ferry survey, 42 percent of 279 executives said they have seen a rise in the practice of companies awarding inflated titles to retain top talent. Nearly half of recently promoted executives said their responsibilities have remained roughly the same despite their new titles.
Which could be a moot point if they're looking for a job. Take it from the head of hiring: Job titles matter "very little," said Brad Patrick, senior vice president of human resources at Sara Lee Food & Beverage. "We really underscore the importance of writing a clear, concise résumé," he said. "The titles? We look beyond those."
In fact, he's looking for people whose work went way beyond their job titles. So perhaps it's the substance that counts after all.
Before Burbage came to Motley Fool several years ago, he worked for Bank of America. Like most banks, he said it had thousands of vice presidents. "I would think, 'If only I work harder, I can get from assistant vice president to vice president.' " But when he finally made it, his duties didn't change. In fact, he said, nothing really changed except his business card holder. Oh, and he got an extra week of vacation.
To some, a title means something, even if that something is, well, only a title. Sharon Bower has been with her company for almost 12 years. While her title was legal analyst, her office put a freeze on title promotions so it could rewrite and redefine the titles, she said.
Later, Bower was doing the work of a senior analyst but could not receive a title promotion. Her anxiety about the lack of title bump was not about money: Her boss gave her a raise, so she was making close to what a senior analyst made and she was content with that.
The final frustration for her was when she was working on a project with senior engineers, senior analysts and project leads from other areas of the company. It came up that she was "just" a legal analyst. "I was kind of surprised to find myself in this situation. If you had asked me before, I would have said, 'They can call me whatever they want as long as they pay me!' But after several years of doing the work and not getting credit, it finally got to the point that the title was more important than the raise," she said. "It became embarrassing."
Finally, about a year ago (four years after she started lobbying for a new title), Bower got her title bump.
So was the fight worth it? Did the new title change her life?
She laughed. "I really think it was a matter of just professional prestige."