Titles are important

Let me be completely clear - job titles are critically important.

Now, anyone who has heard me speak on the subject, from small groups to round tables on careers in IT, will be shocked to hear me say that. I’m usually pointing out to people that chasing a title is ridiculous. And that still holds true. If you want a job because you want the title - Lead, Manager, Director, VP - you’re making a mistake and you’re doing yourself a disservice. A title shouldn’t drive your career. A title won’t make you happy. In fact, my conclusion in these conversations, always, is “Titles aren’t for you, they are so other people know what you do.”

“So why the flip flop, Dawn?” you say. Because saying they aren’t important is true - as an end goal titles don’t mean much. But saying they are important is ALSO true - as a descriptor they have value. Internally they shouldn’t hold sway, externally they are a short cut for people to understand what one another does, professionally.

A title is a tag, if you will, for not only your skills but what is expected from you as part of your job. You know that someone who is a Senior Web Developer does something different than a Director of Business Intelligence. Both are important roles within an organization, both use different skills and have experience in different arenas.

In fact, you can recognize that a Senior Web Developer has different skills than a Senior Embedded Developer. At a glance you know that one is dealing with Internet based languages and frameworks and markup - HTML5, .Net or PHP, REST, SOAP and so on. The other is dealing with a completely different set of technologies - RTOS, C, Assembly. This isn’t to say that a web developer can’t become (or hasn’t been) an embedded programmer, or visa versa. What it does say is that someone holding the one title is currently using a different set of skills and experience than the person that holds the other.

And it is because they help to inform the outsider, the casual (or even interested) observer as to what is what that, as a manager, you need to think very carefully about the titles of the roles on your team. They will tell others what the members of your team do, and collectively what your team does, at least at a high level. They create a common language for us all.

This is especially critical when hiring. Companies love to come up with titles that are creative, that have meaning within the organization and that tell people you work with what projects you're on and in what business unit. Potential employees, on the other hand, need a guide book for what the role entails without deep diving into the job description.

Modern job searches generally begin with someone typing a title into a search bar. Consider, for instance, the data compiled by CareerBuilder in their 2015 Candidate Behavior Study. The study
breaks up job search behavior into 4 phases:

  • Orientation: candidates begin assessing their talents and what is available in the market, usually by doing some searches and talking to friends. They also start updating their resumes.
  • Consideration: The job seeker starts to engage their community and network. Some of that takes place on social media.
  • Action: Candidates are actively applying for jobs.
  • Engagement: There is active communication between companies and candidates, including interviews and negotiations.


In which phase do you think the job title isn’t important in some way to the job seeker? If you said “None of the above”, you’re correct. Let’s take a closer look as to why that is.

For our purposes, we'll pretend you have a need on your team for a user experience architect - someone who will do user research, usability testing, and create high and low fidelity wireframes. You are told, or convinced, to call this a UI Design Engineer (I’ve actually seen this title). What effect is that title going to have in each of the search phases for a candidate?

During the orientation phase, candidates are poking around, seeing what jobs are available. Almost all of them are using Google at some point for this. In fact, according to the CareerBuilder report, at every job level from entry to executive, 70% or more of these candidates use Google in phase 1. So someone looking for your job will search, and they will search for the key words that are closely related and commonly accepted in the industry to match their skills. They will type in user experience, UX, UX architect, maybe even UX designer. Based on the title, your job will only show up in one of those searches, and it won’t be high on the list.

Let’s move on to phase 2, Consideration. Here, candidates are getting social about their search. Again, referring back to the behavior report, 68% of men and 71% of women will use social media as part of their search at this point. But with so much noise in social media (a medium that pioneered the acronym tl;dr) you need to catch someone’s attention to get them to read deeper into what you’re looking for. If your title doesn’t speak to them, they won’t look any further.

When candidates reach the Action phase, phase 3, they are submitting their resumes. Let me ask you - have you done this lately? I’m here to tell you that most of the time, it’s PAINFUL, with a capital everything. You upload your resume, then you're asked to type in everything you just uploaded. Candidates don’t need more deterrents keeping them from applying for your job. Most applicant tracking systems are enough to make you want to be homeless instead. So if the title doesn’t tell them what it is they will be doing, or makes you seem confused as an employer as to what the job should be, they will spend their time elsewhere. This leaves you with the bottom of the barrel, truly desperate job seekers.

In phase 4, Engagement, candidates are actively engaging with companies. Assuming that you’ve gotten past the previous hurdles you might have a hard time getting your great candidate to want to take a job with the title as it stands. You have to think about this from an employee’s perspective, and at the end of the day they will wonder if the job title they are about to commit to is going to help them get their next gig. Think about it for a moment. If you received a resume with an ambiguous title listed, you’d want to know what it is they really did. I’ve had candidates ask me as part of offer negotiations to change a title for this exact reason. Referring one last time to the CareerBuilder report, 67% of High Technology industry workers would compromise on salary for good experience. But if that good experience can’t be reflected on their resume, what value does it hold?

Job titles are for other people, and sometimes those other people are the highly skilled and valuable candidates that you hope will hold that title soon. It’s time for us as leaders to step away from the thesaurus and create job titles that have actual meaning for job seekers and everyone else.

2 comments:

  1. So this begs the question, what about consulting jobs? We don't hire for a specific skill set, we strive for well-rounded people willing and able to tackle a lot of things. How do you sex that up? For instance I am a principal consultant who focuses on agile training and coaching, but also does TFS customization and QA strategy/execution. So mt title is more a reflection of the breadth of my skills and the depth of my experience.

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    1. I would say there are two types of consulting firms out there - one that looks for someone with DEEP knowledge in a specific area and one that looks, as you describe, for someone with a well-rounded background (what the first type does with those people is a different discussion :) ). Because we're specifically talking about the well rounded case, I think that the title - Principal Consultant - is completely appropriate, and here is why. On the company side, you don't want that title to hem in your consultant. You don't want to send, say, an Agile trainer out to do a TFS customization and have to deal with phone calls from the client on why they were sent the wrong person. On the job search side, someone who is looking for a consulting gig is more likely to look for positions with "consultant" in the title, and are more likely, I believe, to dive into the description. Also, I'll admit, my example was a bit contrived in that a search engine will pick up a job description with "consultant" in the title and, say, "TFS" or "Agile" (or both) in the description. The consultant part it most important as the life of a consultant is different than a corporate FTE. You certainly don't want someone applying for your job that doesn't want to lead that life.

      But titles are like email subjects - they let people know what they are likely to see when they click on it. With tongue firmly in cheek I predict companies will start to A/B test job titles and see which performs better. What's the engagement on job title A vs B? :)

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