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HR Magazine - December 2000: Getting A Grip on Titles

HR Magazine, December 2000

Vol. 45, No. 12

Are job titles getting out of hand in your organization? Inflated or misled titles can cause confusion, pay problems and morale woes.

Bonnie Culp knew her company had a problem with job titles when she counted more than 900 of them. Nearly one in every three employees, spread out over more than 200 locations in 40 states, had a unique title.

The discovery was “a big, red road sign” signaling that something needed to be done about the proliferation of titles, recalls Culp, senior vice president for human resources and administration at Metrocall Inc., an Alexandria, Va.-based provider of messaging services.

Culp isn’t the only HR professional concerned about titles these days. For one HR consultant, the indication that a client company needed help was its less-than-elegant solution when it needed a new title. The company was trying to give a step up to employees ready to move from “secretary” but not quite qualified for the position of “senior secretary.” So the company invented the title of “semi-senior secretary.”

Several factors are behind the proliferation of job titles, say HR professionals. Mergers and acquisitions might require rationalization of the titles of two or more organizations. A restructuring can force employers to combine the job responsibilities of several employees and give them to one person, who then needs a more comprehensive title. And, efforts to encourage creativity, loyalty or employee satisfaction sometimes result in unusual or grandiose titles.

Experts caution that HR should not presume that having lots of titles, or unique titles, is necessarily bad. In some corporate cultures, unique titles work. But experts also say you should pay attention to job titles and keep them under control because of potential ripple effects on pay, perks, employee morale and company structure.

Meet the Webmaster

Job titles are changing and proliferating for several reasons, according to Paul M. Swiercz, associate professor of employment relations policy at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

As employers redefine the employment relationship and focus on workplace teams, more titles incorporate team concepts, Swiercz says. Also, changes in the economy are affecting titles. The rise of high-tech and Internet firms is creating previously unknown jobs such as “webmaster,” Swiercz notes.

For some employers, such as Metrocall, the proliferation of job titles is a natural byproduct of mergers and acquisitions. Culp notes that the company has undergone four acquisitions in recent years.

The result: “We had all these legacy titles. It was next to impossible to know what some employees really did.”

Downsizing and the ensuing blending of job responsibilities also are contributing to job title changes, says N. Elizabeth Fried, president of N.E. Fried and Associates, a Dublin, Ohio-based compensation consulting firm. Fried, a specialist in secretarial compensation, says companies are forced to ask, “What do we call this?” when a secretary takes on expanded responsibilities outside the realm of the traditional secretary.

Some organizations are moving away from the term “secretary,” she adds, partly because their employees prefer titles such as administrative assistant. But she adds, “Nobody cares if they’re called a secretary if they’re paid well. It’s only an issue in an organization where they treat secretaries like dogs.”

HR Headaches

If HR and management allow titles to get out of control, the resulting inflated or unique titles can cause plenty of headaches.

“Titles are important; they set expectations,” says Lynn Nemser, SPHR, president of Pittsburgh-based Partners in Performance Inc., a consulting firm. Nemser says some entrepreneurial companies allow new employees to create their own titles to support a creative philosophy. The result can be disappointment when expectations based on the title don't match the realities of the job.

Titles also can complicate attempts to measure pay equity within an organization. It’s difficult to figure out appropriate pay levels for employees who are doing similar work but have different titles. “You run the risk of having your pay out of whack,” Nemser says.

Based on her experience at Metrocall and other workplaces, Culp says, “I don't believe you can manage internal pay equity unless you have some control over job titles.”

HR also should ensure that job titles do not run afoul of the Equal Pay Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act. For example, titles could get an employer into trouble with the FLSA if the employee appears to have a title for an exempt job, such as manager, but the employee actually is nonexempt.

Job titles alone do not necessarily trigger legal problems under either law, Fried says. If anyone were going to challenge an employer on potentially discriminatory pay, or on a determination of exempt versus nonexempt status, the challenger would have to look at job responsibilities, not just job titles. But even if ambiguous titles don't lead to legal trouble, they can create confusion—which can lead to employee discontent.

Culp notes that unique or vague job titles also can cause problems with recruiting and job advertising, confusing both recruiters and applicants about the position a company is trying to fill. Culp points to terms like “coordinator,” “administrator” and “manager” as examples. If an employee is a manager, does the employee manage people or projects? If the employee manages projects, the position might better be titled “administrator,” Culp suggests.

“A title should be reflective of the nature and the level of the work,” Fried explains. She strongly cautions against what she calls “weasel titles”—catch-all titles that convey little about the nature of the work. “Coordinator” is one of those terms; it begs the question: “Coordinator of what?”

Inflated job titles also lead to problems. While a puffed-up title may make the employee feel more important, it leads to confusion. Fried cites an “information destruction technician” who runs a document shredder. Such titles don't tell you much about what the person actually does, Fried says. She offers another example: “Does a reproduction specialist work with a copier or a sperm bank?”

Do You Have a Problem?

How does HR know if titles are getting out of hand? Experts identify several red flags that can signal potential problems with inaccurate, vague or incorrectly used titles:

  • The job title does not reflect job content. “You have a problem when someone says, ‘OK, this is the job title. Now, what is it that person does?’” Swiercz says. “HR leaders and line managers should work from one very simple rule: Job titles must reflect job content. With this rule as a starting point, it’s usually possible to come up with a title that works for everyone.”

    The job title changes but the duties don't. “It takes more than 24 hours and a new business card to change a ‘car salesman’ into a ‘transportation consultant,’” Swiercz says.

    A newly conferred job title is tied to perks. Fried says to be on the lookout for jobs suddenly retitled “manager” in companies where manager-level jobs automatically trigger bonus eligibility or a shift from a cubicle to an office. If the title is not justified by some real change in the employee’s status, such as increased responsibility or enhanced education, the new title might be a manager’s effort to give the employee perks and compensation without any corresponding change to the job’s responsibility.

    Titles are given in lieu of, rather than along with, increased compensation. Experts agreed that a job title can be an important conveyer of status, but they strongly cautioned against the practice of giving an employee a fancy new title in place of increased compensation. While not typical, this practice does occur in some companies.

    “Compensation and job titles are tightly entwined, but they are not substitutes for one another,” Swiercz says.

    “I think it’s a shallow reward,” Nemser says. “It’s a short-term fix for a larger problem.” Fried says giving titles in place of pay “creates ill will” and “is demoralizing.”

    The practice can cause retention problems, the consultants note. If an employee receives an elevated title without a corresponding boost in pay, it gives the employee incentive to look elsewhere—plus a great-sounding title to put on a resume to attract other employers.

    HR’s compensation staff has a tough time applying your industry’s salary surveys to your workplace. Companies should assess the time required to report on salary surveys, says Debbie Lambert, managing partner at Compensation & Benefit Solutions in Memphis, Tenn. If the HR compensation staff is taking a long time to compare company salaries to those in salary survey data, it may be an indication that your titles don’t correlate well with standard titles used in your industry.

If titles are out of control, the compensation person doing the salary survey work “knows it’s a nightmare,” Lambert says. The trick, she adds, is getting management to pay attention to salary survey difficulties.

When it comes to deciding whether your system for assigning titles is broken, don’t go into your inquiry assuming you have too many titles or levels, Nemser cautions. She says HR should start by finding out what all the existing jobs are and determining how the jobs fit into the organization.

Starting with the Business Case

In Metrocall’s case, dealing with 900 titles has been a gradual process of whittling down options. “You don't make dramatic changes quickly or do things that are unsettling to people” in the aftermath of an acquisition, Culp says.

As a first step, Metrocall’s HR managers met with company management to make the business case that the company needed to consolidate titles. That was complicated by the fact that Metrocall is “a very entrepreneurial company” that encourages business units to operate with some autonomy, Culp says.

But Culp and her colleagues convinced management that consolidation was critical to address internal equity issues and to support succession planning. “How do you do succession planning if you can’t even identify the jobs people are doing?” she adds.

Working with an internal compensation analyst, Metrocall used its own existing job titles as a starting point but did not reject all titles inherited in the acquisition. The analyst went through the titles with management to match old job titles to new job titles. Then HR circulated new job descriptions within the company to make sure the descriptions matched titles. “We wanted clear distinctions between jobs,” Culp says.

Metrocall has finished a first round of revamped job descriptions and has converted employees to the new job titles, shrinking the number from 900 to about 350.

But one thing did not change in this process. “There were a lot of emotional issues” in field offices relating to titles, Culp notes. Employees’ existing titles on their business cards meant a lot to them and conveyed some standing in the communities in which they operated. Metrocall agreed to let employees retain their prior titles locally and on their business cards, as long as the employees also held a standard title within the internal Metrocall compensation system and organizational structure.

“They were very happy with that,” says Culp, who credits the compromise as the key to allowing the title-consolidation effort to move forward with management support.

Metrocall is continuing to consolidate titles, but the task may never be completed. In a company as dispersed as Metrocall with local and regional managers, enforcing a standard list of titles is difficult, she says. “It seems to be an ongoing effort as new managers come on board or transfer to other areas of the company,” she says. “Plus, old habits die slowly.”

There are times when old titles shouldn’t die at all. Fried recalls her experience several years ago when a colleague somewhat facetiously objected to her push for gender-neutral job titles. The colleague worked in a knitting factory, where a number of employees were known as “hook men.” He assured her that the employees would never accept the gender-neutral alternative title of “hooker.”

Charlotte Garvey is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area who reports on business and environmental issues.


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