Last week, I stumbled upon an article by Kelly Main on FitSmallBusiness that I initially found hilarious. The piece highlighted some of the most inflated job titles companies actually have used--for example, Director of First Impressions (receptionist) and Customer Happiness Hero (customer service representative), just to name a few.
But me being me, then I couldn't help but ask more seriously, why do businesses do this in the first place? What you put in a job posting, your company directory or on a desk nameplate is, after all, a conscious choice.
Two reasons inflated job titles are so popular.
From a technical standpoint, fellow Inc. columnist J.T. O'Donnell points out that inflated titles are at least partly connected to online searches for talent. Job titles that have been inflated with certain keywords that reflect the skills necessary for the job offer hiring managers an easy way to find candidates.
But from the psychological standpoint, what good does maintaining an inflated title do after hiring?
One possible explanation is that companies also are trying to tap into an innate need all people have to feel noticed, included and, to a degree, important. Nobody likes feeling like they're the lowest tier on the totem pole. And more now than ever, companies understand that workers are looking for a sense of purpose in their work.
So by inflating job titles, business leaders give potential job candidates and hires a way to reframe the position in a more positive, perhaps less embarrassing light.
Inflated job titles don't work.
But people aren't stupid. They don't go to work everyday washing dishes, for instance, and not realize that they are, in fact, a dishwasher. And if a worker tells someone "I'm an underwater ceramic engineer", their listener's next step inevitably is going to be to ask what that title involves.
And so then the worker is in an awkward position where he and his conversation partner both have to finally call a spade a spade, meaning that the business likely still has failed in its attempt to spare the worker embarrassment and help them feel good about their responsibilities.
Perhaps more detrimentally, underneath all this, the problem is that businesses leaders might be failing at helping workers see two points, the first of which is how the simple, mundane or otherwise unexciting work in a business actually does support the big picture vision. If a restaurant doesn't have dishwashers, for example, nobody can eat, the same as if the famous chef didn't show up.
Make these connections crystal clear to everyone on your team and directly express appreciation for the effort--inflated titles are never an adequate substitute for a genuine thank you or for intentionally paving the way for the worker to eventually progress to "higher" work.
Secondly, inflated job titles dismiss the importance of worker integrity. They perpetuate the myth that only "important" work has value, rather than supporting the idea that honest effort still deserves respect. It essentially sends the message that how a job sounds matters more than what a worker learns or the fact that they listened, met expectations and took you seriously.
Not all work is going to be glamorous, and that's OK--it's approaching those types of jobs with the same ethics and effort as the "big stuff" that reveals which people have the good character necessary to be trusted with and do more.
As an additional point for you to consider, this is arguably an age of transparency. You don't convey a sense of authenticity and realism if you don't just acknowledge what a worker actually does. Don't sugar coat or try a bait-and-switch if you want your hires to trust you.
How you treat your hire matters most.
The reality is, most people don't want to be in a lower-tier job. They want a real career. And, at least in the United States, we invariably use "I am" when talking about our positions, so job titles connect to our sense of being and who we are.
But nobody is "just" anything. And as a leader, you can choose to fight the "lesser than" connotations some basic titles might carry. Your behavior toward the employee sends an equally strong message about how you see them, so if you want them to feel important, just treat them that way.