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Have Job Titles Become Meaningless?

Have Job Titles Become Meaningless?

over 3 years ago by Shane Lees

Shane Lees blog on job titles in recruitment and other careers

The year is 2045. We're all working in avant-garde standing offices and every single one of them has its own coffee shop, breakfast bar and virtual ping pong table. Suit trousers have become a thing of the past and we all wear homeopathic edible shorts. You no longer have a boss, merely a collective of colleagues for whom you all share responsibility for everything. One bloke called Gary, still in his shirt and tie, sits tutting quietly in the corner as he lunches on his ham sandwich on white bread, pondering how it all came to this and remembering that way back when he was a young man he read a LinkedIn article by some self-important recruiter who told everyone that job titles were meaningless and that everything changed from that day.

Don't worry, that wasn't this article. That was by someone probably called Dylan. In this one you're going to watch a one man show of Argumental where we actually attempt to assess just how useful a job title is. 

Job Titles Have Value

Okay the simple stuff first, job titles clearly have value in being an immediate way to determine what it is someone does. Can you imagine how awkward dinner parties would be if you had to have a 5-minute conversation to find out what someone does? Calling me a recruiter is perfectly sufficient for figuring out what exactly I do. Within recruitment job titles make it easier to search for people, clear in discerning levels of seniority and whether or not a person is relevant to what we're looking for. On a cursory level at least, they are an excellent way of summing up someone’s career as, after all, a job title is nothing more than a precis of everything that comes below the job title. 

They have an added level of depth as well; expressing relevance. Let's say I'm helping an ultra-modern start up hire for a red-hot front-end developer. They want someone who's young, ambitious and with a strong drive. There is a clear culture geared towards this and everyone in the office is wearing khaki's. Now I do my initial search through people I know, jobs boards and LinkedIn. I've put in all the details regarding what skills they need and considered seniority and salary requirements. Two people come up, no pictures and a snapshot only of the last few years of their experience. One has the job title 'Front End Developer' the other has 'Programmer'. I know from these two titles who's more likely to be the right fit culturally as the job titles are reflective of what these roles were called in different generations. Job titles don't just tell us about the nature of our seniority and what we do; they can provide context as well and our background. 

Lastly is another more nebulous value; identity. For all our attempts to subvert conformism in society it often just results in a sub strand of conformity. Humans want an identity, a label, a set of easily identifiable markers or words that make everyone understand who we are. Everyone wants to be understood, and deep down we know that having everyone understand us on every level is impossible. So, we create broad, sweeping, generalising labels to fit us and others and apply them. This obviously has both positive and negative consequences, but a job title is simply an extension of that. How much of a doctor’s identity is in his title? How much of a builder or a soldier or a scientist? Whether or not we know it there is a sense of uniformity within these titles and it's no surprise that people from certain professions all seem quite similar identity wise. A job title helps give us our identity and having a strong understanding of the self is a vital part of being happy. 

Job Titles Are Limited

As a precis, it goes without saying that a job title has its limitations in representing us, but I'd go further than that still. Job titles, as much as they can represent us, often don't. Every company has its own system of seniority or meaning for each word. Calling someone a technician at Boeing is very different to a technician at a beauty parlour. There are different assumptions about the level and degree of technical skill involved, as well as the training and experience required. What one company classes as 'manager' another company might class as 'senior executive'. The 'Senior Executive' at another company might be their equivalent of a mid-level professional. Correctly discerning seniority from job titles is far too fluid a notion due to the lack of uniformity in job naming practices. Sometimes a company has a very strict version of what kind of job title a candidate will need to have on their CV in order to be considered, but what they fail to realise is almost no other companies use that title or that their use of the title is vastly different to the use by other companies. 

Furthermore, a job title can be stifling. What if you're a natural people manager but the ladder your climbing requires you to go through mid-senior level positions first to get there? How many years could you be wasted in a position that isn't where you could be of the most value? Job titles don't necessarily reflect skills or even ambitions as job titles always imply vertical growth (e.g. Junior < Mid < Senior < Manager < Head of < Director) whereas your path might require sideways movements or focusing on certain specialisms. Whilst a job title might reflect the physical seniority of a candidate’s current position, it doesn't necessarily reflect the seniority they should have. 

Skills and experience, as always, are the best ways of assessing how good a candidate is for a position. Whilst job titles can tell us a lot they are ultimately nothing more than chapter headlines and the body of information below it is the really important bit. It shouldn't matter what job title someone has and what a company is looking for; if they are an absolute perfect match for skills, experience and personality then what difference does the 2 words at the top of the paragraph make? Absolutely none and the only real way to get a true sense for all of that is to just speak with, preferably in person, the candidate and talk to them about what they've done, find out about their personality and test them on their skills. 

A job title shouldn't be a blockage to being considered for a role though plenty in my industry, myself included, could learn to not put half as much importance into a job title as we currently do. Right now, a job title isn't going to be enough to make us think 'oh this person's really good' as we'll look into more depth into the CV. However, it is often enough to dismiss someone as 'oh they don't have manager on any of their titles' or 'It doesn't look like these titles are specialist enough'. Ultimately if the first statement is true the second statement shouldn't be and everyone in the recruitment industry, from us self-important recruiters to HR to the hiring managers themselves would find it pays dividends and opens the candidate market wide open to highly skilled candidates that are otherwise being unfairly disregarded over just two words. Job titles aren't meaningless, but they have far less meaning then we are currently giving them in this industry. 

Perhaps I really was Dylan all along… Sorry Gary.