Who needs a title, anyway?

In the past week, I’ve had several conversations that involved people’s “titles.”  There has been debate for years as to whether or not titles matter.  I, for one, think they do, and for some very practical reasons.  Here are my main arguments in favor of titles:

1.  Titles should represent the level of authority and responsibility someone has in your company.  That’s not an ego issue, that’s a practical one.  People in the company need to know who has the authority to make certain types of decisions.  Titles help to clarify that.  For example, perhaps only managers can approve purchase orders.  It’s easy for me to know who is a manager if the title is clear. 

2.  Titles help employees understand the paths of growth within the company.  Back to the point above, if the title changes as responsibility and authority increase, that’s a career path.  We grow up being promoted from one grade to another as an indication that we’ve learned something or improved in some way.  We know that in high school and college, Freshmen are less prestigious than Sophomores, and Seniors are the most prestigious of all.  They’ve earned the place by growing through the ranks.  I don’t think we get over that need for an understanding of the steps just because we get out of school.  Maybe in your company, the hierarchy is assistant, supervisor, manager, senior manager, vice-president, etc.  It lays out the path of accomplishment and achievement.  People can easily tell where they are on the path.  And if you’re smart, you have methods in place to let them know what it takes to get to the next rung on the ladder.

3.  Titles are important to some people as status symbols.  Some companies in recent years have moved away from using titles at all.  I’ve seen that cause frustration when someone is trying to tell people what they do — they don’t have a title to start with, so they stammer around the kinds of tasks they work on.  You can see in their faces that they are uncomfortable.  They feel “less than” because they don’t have a hook to hang their job from.  It’s much easier if someone can answer the question, “what do you do,” with a response like, “I’m an Accounting Coordinator with ABC company, and I handle the accounts payable and billing functions,”   rather than a general, “I work in the accounting department.”

4.  Titles also indicate certain things to the outside world – customers, vendors, colleagues, and so on.  For instance, someone who carries a “Manager” title may be assumed to have a reasonable level of decision-making ability.  Someone who is named a “Principal” might be more accepted by clients and customers as having status appropriate to their needs.  Think carefully about how titles will be perceived before deciding to give one away.

If you’re using titles, here are a few rules that I think make sense:

1.  Never arbitrarily give someone a title — it must have meaning and be accurate to the position.

2.  Never change someone’s title without letting them know what is being done and why.  Be honest.  Are their duties being changed?  Are they performing more or fewer duties than before?  Is this a step up, down or sideways?

3.  Always communicate title changes throughout the organization.  If the titles truly mean something, other people need to understand the impact of the change on their reporting or cooperating relationships.

4.  Document the meaning of titles so that people can clearly understand the duties, authority and responsibilities that go along with your levels and titles.


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