2019-12-16-hrexaminer article mary faulkner job titles still matter in hr career hiring photo img cc0 via unsplash by thiago cardoso MHdVIKMkd6E 544x340px.jpg

“Oh, they’ll tell you titles are immaterial. That holocracy is a magic elixir. That no one actually looks at titles when it comes to talent. They’re lying.” - Mary Faulkner

Oh, they’ll tell you titles are immaterial. That holocracy is a magic elixir. That no one actually looks at titles when it comes to talent.

They’re lying.

Everybody looks at titles. Vendors look at them to decide whether or not you’re worthy of a conversation at conferences. Recruiters look at them as a shortcut in their sourcing process. Hiring managers look at them to decide whether or not it’s acceptable to hire you in at a certain level. Executives look at them to decide whether or not your proposal is credible.

And if you read that paragraph and thought, “I don’t do that,” you might be telling the truth. After all, I know quite a few recruiters that do try to look at an applicant’s responsibilities. And they try to make a case to the hiring managers that titles are arbitrary and organization-specific. Sometimes that works…but a lot of times it doesn’t. This is why so many people are obsessed with job titles – gotta get the promotion to get the title to get the raise to get the next promotion and so on.

I’ll admit it – there was a time in my career when I was obsessed with titles. Not initially, though. When I first started working, it was in startups and small companies. Titles didn’t really exist because we all did so many different things just to keep the business going. This made sense and was freeing – you couldn’t say, “that’s not my job,” because there weren’t really “jobs,” just things that needed to be done. It was fun and I loved that environment. But then the dot-com bubble burst, the small businesses I worked for were limiting in growth opportunities, and I found myself needing to find a “real” job.

What I learned is that people in charge of hiring seem to care an awful lot about what title you currently have before hiring you for a totally different job…and I didn’t have one. Since that first search, I was overly aware of what title I had. I also learned that every single company approaches titles differently – an “account manager” at one company is a “telemarketer” at another. And a director at one company might make $30,000/year…but they have that director title so let’s assume they can do director level work. So when I took a job that meant a “lower” title, even though the scope of responsibility was greater, I felt a ridiculous need to over-explain what my title really meant in our hierarchy, and I would use vague terms in my LinkedIn profile to avoid the title-bias inherent in our world. And while I loved to see my peers and former direct reports get promoted to cool-sounding titles, there was a part of me that was frustrated I hadn’t broken some arbitrary title barrier yet.

And then, one day, I realized I didn’t care.

photo of Mary Faulkner, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor.

Mary Faulkner, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor.

I can’t even tell you what the trigger event was. It simply…happened. I saw former employees get cool new jobs, and I sent them messages of congratulations and meant them. I was excited to see people I once worked with grow and reach their full potential, and hopefully land their dream jobs, regardless of what the title was.

Let me be clear – I am not begrudging anyone for wanting a job with a fancy title (see the first couple of paragraphs in this article for justification). In my situation, I simply recognized that chasing titles was never going to be good enough. I would never be satisfied with an Executive Vice President title if the work itself wasn’t interesting. I don’t want to be the head HR honcho in some organization if the C-suite is full of jerks who don’t value people and support toxicity and harassment. And I certainly couldn’t be in a role that asked me to simply slide in and “not rock the boat.” 

I found that once I stopped caring about titles, my advice to job seekers changed, too. I started suggesting they look for experiences and environments instead of titles and direct reports. I pointed out red flags that jumped out of communication from recruiters. I forwarded articles about companies that had reputations for being tough to work for. I asked them what they really cared about in a job – if it was a title, then go for the title. Just be aware of the whole package, and realize that some companies inflate titles because they underpay their workforce. They’re banking on the fact that someone will take the job because they want a fancy title.

At no time do I advocate being underpaid. Money is important – it brings stability, feeds and houses your family…fun stuff like that. Always make sure you’re making enough money. Know what you’re worth. Know what the job is worth.

Not caring about titles meant I was free to start pursuing interesting opportunities. It meant I could prioritize the type of work I wanted to do in the environment where I wanted to do it. As a result, I now have a job I love doing work I find interesting and challenging and not in the least bit boring. It’s a job I like going back to after a vacation. It’s a job that pushes me to keep learning and doesn’t pigeon-hole me into a specific industry or even day-to-day role. That’s what I wanted and it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t refocused my search to what was really important to me.

If exploring a career approach that doesn’t focus on titles sounds interesting to you, here are some suggestions:

  • Be honest about your motivations: Start keeping a list of things you like in your career and things you don’t like. Then stack rank them. This will come in handy for that next recruiter email that dangles a fancy new job in front of you, because now you already know your core work values and can easily compare current to potential future state. And hey, for some people, titles will be number one on the “must have” list – and that’s okay. Now you know it and can use it to make that next career move.
  • Be realistic about your financial needs: Not everyone can quit their corporate gig and travel the US in a converted van. Not everyone can quit their current job and take one for a lot less money. Take a hard look at where you are today and where you want to be in the future. If taking a pay cut to get your dream job is attainable, fantastic!!! But not everyone is in that position. Figure out what your minimum livable take home pay is, and use that as a barometer.
  • Find people with the same attitude about titles: Some companies will tell you they don’t care about titles…and then when you start, you’re told you can’t have the leather chair because you’re not a director (this actually happened to a coworker). As you research an opportunity, find out how they make decisions, how they run meetings, how they work on projects. If titles don’t really matter, you’ll see a level of collaboration and equality not enjoyed in overly hierarchical organizations.
  • Understand that titles will STILL matter at some level: Except for the very few, you will still have someone with a title higher than yours, and that person will sometimes have to pull rank to make a decision that you might not have agreed with or that you didn’t get to weigh in on. Deal with it. Structure is still a good thing and the buck has to stop somewhere. And yes, you will deal with vendors and others who don’t want to talk to you because you don’t have that fancy title. Challenge them on it. Dazzle them with competence, and if that doesn’t work, pull in a fancy title to open the door and then keep doing your thing.

Let’s face it – titles are just a part of work and they aren’t going anywhere. You can’t set up an HCM without them. LinkedIn gets very worried if you set up a profile without one. And how would we EVER make small talk at a cocktail party without them?! The question is – are they everything? Ultimately, it comes down to what’s most important to you.

If you’re going to chase something, chase something that matters.

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