The name game

dotcom boom led companies to invent funky, and sometimes ridiculous, job
titles. The trend has left HR with big dilemmas about how to label jobs, and
global companies face a minefield in interpreting the local nuances in how
staff are titled. Pepi Sappal investigates

was a time when a person’s job title would neatly indicate their role, level
and career progression. But this is no longer the case, even in the most
traditional of organisations. Knowing what to label employees, both at home and
abroad, is causing many a headache for HR.

starters, trendy titles such as ‘director of emerging thought’ to ‘chief
detonator’ are increasingly becoming the norm – in the West at least, even
though they offer few clues as to what the job actually entails. This is a
lasting legacy of the dotcom revolution. "In a bid to buck the traditional
pecking order of hierarchical structures and establish a different culture,
companies like Yahoo! and Netscape came up with funky titles," says
Franchette Richards, a former HR director of a dotcom, who is currently a
consultant at UK international destination firm Going There. Some titles such
as ‘manager of mischief’ and ‘goddess of invention’ verged on the ridiculous.
"So when most dotcoms went belly-up, so did most of these titles,"
adds Richards.

not all, says Paul Simmonds, global network director at recruitment
consultancy, The Bernard Hodes Group. "In pursuit of attracting former
dotcommers to a less formal, more fun culture, big corporations like Microsoft
and IBM embraced some of those trendier titles. Some have taken a safer route,
where they have a business card with a traditional title on one side, and a
funkier title on the reverse," says Simmonds. "Retailer Whittards is
a case in point. The retail operations director has chief cheerleader printed
on the reverse of his business card."

trends have not really taken off in the rest of Europe. "People there
still expect the kudos of having a formal job title," says Simmonds.
"You wouldn’t find a ‘Cultural Czar’ in Italy or Germany, for
example." That’s also the case in status-conscious cultures like Latin
America and Asia. "The popular US dressing-down culture where even the
chief exec comes to work in a T-shirt and jeans never happen in Latin America.
Nor would those titles," remarks CJ Perez, managing director of
International Executive Recruiting Group, in Miami. It doesn’t matter how young
a vice-president is, so long as they adhere to the expected formal behaviour
and dress code required by their title."

lesson in respect

job titles in that culture come with their own set of nuances. Titles in Latin
America tend to come implicit with social privileges. "Here, senior titles
automatically come with perks. A senior executive will never ask about things
like exclusive club memberships or a chauffeur, because it’s assumed that it
comes with job," explains Perez. "But in the US these perks usually
have to be negotiated."

professions are also indicated in the title on Latin American business cards,
points out Efrain Logreira, of California-based Corte Hispana which specialises
in providing training material for the Hispanic workplace. "So a lawyer
would be referred to as ‘Licenciado’ Suarez instead of Se¤or (Mr) Suarez, for
example, indicating he is qualified, much in the same way as a doctor. The same
is true for an engineer, who would be called ‘Ingeniero’. These titles are used
both in and out of the workplace."

in Asian countries, titles go beyond the workplace and into the community,
reflecting where an individual sits in the social hierarchy. The more senior an
employee is (usually indicated by age), the higher the title and the more
respect he receives. In Japanese organisations, for instance, the higher up the
pecking order someone is, the lower the kurtow he would expect to receive from
subordinates. In fact, a title in Asia is just as important as someone’s name,
if not more so. On a Japanese business card a title often appears above the
name. "Asian cultures, especially those in the Far East, are generally
very impressed with titles and letters after a name," claims Larry
Cambron, president, Asia Pacific of global career consultancy DBM. "And
the more qualifications the better."

is not uncommon for prospective employees in Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong to
turn down a position because of a job title," claims Mark Ellwood, country
manager of the Singapore office at recruitment firm Robert Walters International,
"especially if they feel the title insults them or they don’t like the job
description." That said, employers must be wary of inflated titles in this

candidates use exaggerated and grander job titles than a position merits in a
bid to bolster their experience," Ellwood adds. "A candidate may have
used the title of ‘senior accountant’ at a company where they were the only
accountant working in the business. Or perhaps they might indicate they held
the position of ‘chief financial officer’ for Asia when the company only has an
office in Singapore."

HR director of an international hotel chain in Hong Kong (who prefers to remain
anonymous) confirms that "it’s common to promote someone in Asia just to
keep them happy, especially if we can hold on to them for another year".
In these difficult times you can often avoid giving money if you offer a better
title. People will take it because, unlike a pay rise, a promotion is easier to
flaunt on a new business card. It’s all about face here. So employers
recruiting in the region would be wise to check out just how genuine titles and
credentials are."

only do attitudes to job titles vary from country to country, but so does the
meaning of a title. It’s not rare to find two identical positions in terms of
responsibility which have different titles. The equivalent position of director
or managing director in the UK, for instance is vice-president in the US – yet
the latter is often perceived as being more prestigious.

in a vice

problem with job titles doesn’t end there. Even within most countries the
significance of a title varies enormously from industry to industry. "In
some sectors, you only get vice-president status after working for years in
organisation, say, in a fmcg firm," says Lance Richards, international HR
consultant of Washington-based Suddenly Global. "But if you look at the
banking industry, all graduates start out as VP, even though they’re 12 rungs
down the ladder. They report to a senior vice-president, who in turn reports to
the executive vice-president, who reports to the group EVP, who will report in
turn to the senior EVP, and so forth," he says. "This is usually
client-driven. Most bank clients want to feel that they are dealing with
someone important which is why in banking everyone’s a VP."

confuse matters further, titles tend to differ within companies in the same
sector. "You’ve got to be careful not to make any assumptions," warns
Richards. "For example, a friend who was a VP of HR with a former employer,
moved to Cisco as HR manager. The title may not have the kudos of VP, but the
salary of more than $170,000 certainly indicates that a manager at Cisco is a
very senior position."

Sharon Hall, managing director, Atlanta, of international executive search firm
Spencer Stuart, warns: "You cannot rely on titles meaning what they say,
even in the most traditional of organisations.

companies become more global, roles become more blurred. In a bid to leverage
thought leadership and best practice across functions, it’s not uncommon for
organisations to move talent around from one function or department to another.
"Take HR as an example. A firm may decide to move the VP GM from running
his/her region into HR, reinventing it to run more like a business as HR
becomes increasingly critical."

dilemma for HR is what to do with the title. "Does it make him VP of HR?
It’s unlikely the VP GM will accept that because they lose status, so the
company may decide to leave the title VP GM, even though he/she is running HR.
It’s a common scenario where a title may no longer reflect rank, role or
responsibility," explains Hall.

same happens with people who have dual roles or those wearing several hats.
Hall is a case in point. "I have about four different roles from MD,
Atlanta, to co-head of diversity practice, and therefore have a business card
for each, distributed according to the hat I’m wearing."

these inconsistencies with job titles – across companies, sectors and countries
– would it not it be easier just to do away with them?

thinking behind a workspace without titles is to provide a free thinking,
unbureaucratic environment where the barriers of communication are
minimal," says David Magowan, UK director of Banking and Commerce
Permanent at recruitment consultancy Robert Walters International.
"However, this won’t work for every organisation, especially the more
complex and bigger ones."

the chaos this would cause for a multinational. "Clients wouldn’t be able
to ascertain what role people had, which would make it difficult to get
appointments. So we’d be hard pressed to completely do away with titles,"
says Hall.

job descriptions

companies like The Bernard Hodes Group have put the onus on new recruits to
come up with their own titles and job descriptions. "When we made a key
appointment in the UK earlier this year, we told the new recruit what was
expected of the role, but left it up to him to draft a job description and
appropriate title," says Paul Simmonds. "And we are seeing more
clients following suit."

would call that flexibility, others a cop out. "Of course, there is
another solution," says Hall. "Companies could adopt a framework
where employees just fit into, say, three categories – thought leader, business
driver and process driver – to replace traditional titles," she says.
"Or even a far simpler system where everyone becomes a team member."

admits Hall, that’s unlikely to happen – not in the near future anyway. And
until certain sectors and cultures continue to attach such importance to job
titles, the issue will continue to be fraught with complications.


not just in Asia that it’s common to promote or give someone a better title to
keep them happy. Research carried out by recruitment website has
identified a new phenomenon sweeping across the UK – uptitling – where the use
of longer and highfalutin titles are being used to motivate and retain staff
when budgets are being squeezed.

1,700 workers surveyed two thirds believed the use of titles such as director,
head and chief had grown in their organisations in the past two years, with
three quarters of large organisations using this tactic. Nearly half of all
employees thought a new job title would improve their happiness at work even if
their responsibilities didn’t change.

some titles only served to obfuscate what jobs they performed. Here are some of
the more confusing along with their original roles:

marketing, multimedia products and promotional services (marketing manager)

vice-president global procurement (office manager)

corporate promotions and systems executive (marketing assistant)

improvement manager(stock controller)

operations design and communications EMEA/worldwide (marketing manager)

head of services, infrastructure and procurement (office/admin assistant)

strategic sourcing analyst (computer programmer)

receivables control and analysis manager (credit controller)

Tim Runacre at Reed  020 7313 7458

Comments are closed.