Job Titles Should Reflect Changing Roles, Be Professional

By Kathy Gurchiek Oct 5, 2015
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Think job titles don’t really matter? Think again, especially as new jobs emerge or old jobs are redefined.

“Jobs are morphing left and right” and titles should reflect that, said Ron F. Wolff, senior vice president of talent development at Caliper, an HR organization based in New Jersey.

Just half of 2,290 administrative professionals in the U.S. and Canada said their title is an accurate description of the work they perform, according to a 2014 survey by California-basedHR consulting firm Robert Half International.

And in an Office of the Future research project that OfficeTeam—a RobertHalf company—and the International Association of Administrative Professionals collaborated on, they reported in 2014 that “the scopes of many jobs have changed, and some positions have even been combined, rendering existing job descriptions outdated.”

Even entry-level jobs are impacted, according to Wolff, who said Caliper’s clients say such jobs are “going begging.” He thinks it’s because even entry-level jobs are becoming increasingly sophisticated as organizations utilize big data. Employers may be looking for people who can act more as data scientists or those who have other formerly unheard-of skills.

The constant changes in the workplace and increasing amounts of available data also mean that “all of a sudden, HR is involved more in job analysis, [in] redefining jobs,” he said. It’s an opportunity for HR to educate themselves and their organizations “on how to look at people issues when making strategic business decisions” about jobs.

Positions such as data scientist in HR, lead knowledge management analyst and chief people analytics officer present HR professionals with the opportunity to increasingly play a strategic role within their organizations.

“HR needs to do a job analysis on [their own jobs],” Wolff added. “How are they going to function as a resource to the C-suite ... so people have the right [data]” to define the skills and competencies needed in the new jobs that organizations will be looking to fill?

Be Creative—But Not Too Creative

Organizations should tread carefully on getting overly creative with job titles. While renaming the position of HR manager as the “happiness advocate” or the head of production at a home remodeling company as “residential Renaissance man” gives those jobs a playful air, as SHRM Online reported in November 2011, such titles could confuse others outside of the organization as to what the job entails.

This might inadvertently end up hurting your employees later down the line as well: An April 2015 Fortune article noted that an employer might bypass a job applicant with an edgy and cool-sounding former job title because it may not match keywords when the organization’s software scans resumes.

Pearl Meyer & Partners, a New York City-based compensation consultancy, found in its 2014 study of job titling practices “that 80 percent of companies surveyed use job titles to accurately reflect the corporate hierarchy,” Fast Company reported in September 2014. Additionally, “more than 92 percent use them to define an employee’s role. However, only 37 percent use them to attract prospective employees.”

And be sure to steer clear of titles that may be sexist.

A September 2015 discussion in the Recruiting & Staffing Management discipline of SHRM Connect revolved around an HR professional seeking advice about the title for a new employee who would be the company president’s personal assistant. The organization strived to have “creatively descriptive titles,” the discussion post noted, and the employee currently in that role had suggested “Girl Friday” as her job title.

Don’t go there, one HR professional advised in the discussion thread.

“Even if the incumbent doesn't mind, it's pejorative and unprofessional,” the responding HR professional said. She suggested a less creative—but more professional-sounding—title such as executive assistant or administrative assistant.

As another discussion participant noted, “There's no way I'd allow gender into a title, unofficial or not.”

What’s in a name? A lot, it seems. Be thoughtful in the ones you select.

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News. Follow her @SHRMwriter.

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