An employee’s job title informs those in and outside of the organization of their role and responsibilities. “People make assumptions about your knowledge, skills, abilities and status based on those titles,” explains Glen Whyte, a professor of organizational behaviour and HR management at the Rotman School of Management. “[Job titles] do have value in the marketplace for people.” But what happens when job titles are used by employers as a talent attraction, or retention, tactic? An appealing job title becomes a bargaining chip for companies that may not have the funds to back up a lucrative role. “One way to compensate people, if you can’t pay them dollars, is to compensate them through some form of conferring of status,” Prof. Whyte says.
This results in job title inflation – a manager becomes a director even if they have only a handful of direct reports. A director becomes a senior director when they ask for a promotion, but their employer can only offer a bump in their title and not in their salary.
The trend has been happening for decades, according to Prof. Whyte, but has become more commonplace in recent years. “I think it’s a phenomenon that is fairly general across industries,” he says. “You see a lot of it in tech and creative industries like marketing and advertising.” Mike Fox, a recruiter in tech for more than two decades, has noticed a familiar trend among his clients. “Earlier stage companies will get some funding, but they don’t really have a whole lot to dangle into the marketplace in terms of interest level for sophisticated candidates,” he says. “So oftentimes, they’ll dangle job titles like chief financial officer and that leads to inflation.”
Mr. Fox says he believes that job title inflation can be harmful for employees, organizations and the job market at large. He likens the trend to the inflation of grades in high school for university admission. “To get into McGill, you need a 94 per cent or something,” Mr. Fox says. “When I was going to school, nobody got 94 per cent.” While an individual employee may find it tempting to accept a boost in job title, Mr. Fox warns of the impact of an inflated role when re-entering the job market. “You’re setting a non-replicable sense of entitlement to somebody that’s not applicable to the marketplace at large,” he says. “By calling a director of finance a CFO, you’re not doing their career any great favours.”
As B.C. Transit’s vice-president of human resources, Greg Conner acts as the gatekeeper to desirable job titles. “From an HR perspective, we get a lot of pressure to inflate job titles,” Mr. Conner says. “Director to executive director is one that everyone wants.”
Mr. Conner says that inflated job titles have a “domino effect” on a company’s organizational structure. A manager that has been promoted to director, even though they don’t have any managers reporting to them, can incite jealousy within other directors in the company. “It doesn’t take long for other directors to come to me and say ‘This isn’t fair,’” he explains. “We get that a lot.” The ripple effect can also run downward as well as laterally. “So I’ve made you a director – now what about the staff that you have beneath you?”
Mr. Conner says he believes that job title inflation is largely a result of younger employees eager to see a forward progression in their careers. “It used to be that for five years, you’d be satisfied being a supervisor,” he says. “Now, after six months, you want to be a manager and then in another year you want to be a director.”
Mr. Conner says he believes that it’s the responsibility of a company’s chief executive and the HR department to keep job titles in check. So, instead of appeasing to an eager employee’s whims, Mr. Conner encourages HR professionals to address the requests directly. “Be clear and transparent about why it’s not possible,” he says. “Look at the organizational structure, the impact of giving them that inflated title and what it would do to everybody else.” Mr. Conner also suggests using requests for inflated job titles to start a conversation about that employee’s career path. “Someone in that situation is interested in moving upward and onward,” he says. “Ask what roles they’re seeking and how you can help get them into a better role. It’s an opportunity to do some development activities.”
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