How a job title can influence employees and candidates’ behaviour

Photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash

Agile Evangelist” may sound dedicated and might have got you a best-in-show award for creativity, few years ago, but it really doesn’t say whether you’re just preaching or actually practicing. The former is much like being a business development advisor without ever owning a business. “Coding ninja” – coding in the shadows perhaps, given its obscurity. Or my favourite new one: “Social Media Whisperer”, which makes me think rather of ASMR videos on YouTube. Job titles need to easily point to anyone inside and outside the organisation where a particular person fits in the hierarchy and what skills that person has.

A job title grants social status, “the most motivating force of social behaviour” according to John Harsanyi (Hungarian economist who was granted the Nobel Prize in Economics, in 1994). An accurate job title, reflecting one’s duties and level of responsibility, can help an employee gain status among peers. An incorrect or inappropriate job title can diminish one’s chances to promote or may even be a cause for disrespect. I remember a guy dressed in shorts whose day to day job was to validate the content of some service requests. A job that could’ve been easily automated. His job title was Quality Project Manager, because he was validating the quality of some requests and managing an account in this respect. The effect was that everyone working in (real) Quality Assurance and Quality Control (testing) was mocking him, not to mention the completely absent management part. It wasn’t his fault for getting this title, but that’s how it backfired. When the title doesn’t match day to day activities, it gives a feeling or an appearance of slight incompetence and can make one feel less accomplished. It may also affect chances of promotion.

McDonald’s use to have about a decade ago (maybe they still do) three levels for assistant managers: I, II and III. Besides the feeling that they’ve run out of words, I could never tell which one was better: 1 or 3 ? However, I’m glad they stopped counting there.

It happens way too often that a candidate is recruited for a job role, then his actual assignment reads something completely different. I guess everyone is familiar with such cases and knows the frustration they can cause.

I once applied for a Security Program Manager role. By all naming conventions in project management, in the organisational structure, the program manager sits above the project manager, due to a broader responsibility, covering multiple projects (or even programs) aligned to a common goal. The HR interview was by far the most unprofessional one I ever took part in, but it wasn’t until the second discussion that I found out the position was really a SOC Manager (Security Ops Centre Manager) and had nothing to do with program management. Besides the obvious difference in requirements, there is a consistent discrepancy in paygrade. It also works the other way around: valuable candidates will not apply for job titles that sound low-paid.

The social media company Buffer realised that women were not applying for their jobs containing the word “hacker”. The moment they replaced “hacker” with “developer”, the number of female applicants increased instantly.

Job titles should be motivating and empowering. They should make people feel accomplished once they reach a certain position and grant a level of autonomy and independence. They might even prevent people from leaving, because many care about social status.

Have you ever come across “fantasy” job titles?