Shall I compare thee to the median daylight hours of an unseasonably warm and bright period of planetary rotation? Or would you just wonder what I was on about? Saying I thought you were as sunny and enjoyable as a summer’s day would have got the point across, and might have endeared you more, no? (Relax, readers, I’m spoken for: and that’s a lucky escape on your part.) We’re all agreed that communication is a vital thing in the workplace, I’m fairly confident, but – as the BBC pointed out recently on its website – we do have a spot of bother when it comes to job titles. Why, when we’re writing it on something as a small as a business card, do we suddenly feel the need to call a spade an earth-moving arboricultural and horticultural personal utensil. (Or presumably, if it has a black handle and a smart logo, an Executive earth-moving arboricultural …)

I’d be fascinated to see more recent results, but the last major survey on how we feel about job titles – conducted by Office Angels in 2000 – revealed that 70% of us might forego a slightly large pay cheque if we could have a more impressive job title to promote ourselves with. And, as The Guardian reported at the time, promoting ourselves was very much what was on our minds:

The spur is that 70% of employees believe people they meet after work judge them instantly by their titles. The consultants said this had been accelerated by a spread of self-important US-style job titles and by wordier job descriptions in e-commerce posts.

Around 70% of those questioned said that they might give up a bigger pay cheque for a more “motivational or professional” job title to make their role seem more dynamic and inspirational. “

In current times, this might be very interesting reading for an HR Department facing the probability of low level pay rises for the foreseeable future – or facing the prospect of pay freezes in the case of the public sector. (We await the detailed survey comparing the cost of updating the intranet and reprinting the business cards with the cost of a pay increase.) It certainly holds out the possibility that there may be a low-cost reward and recognition strategy out there, just waiting for someone to spend a few hours on an online Job Title Generator and make us all happy again.

Before anyone does, we’d suggest they read the CIPD’s online resource on job evaluation, which counsels that:

Job evaluation can be defined as ‘a method of determining on a systematic basis the relative importance of a number of different jobs’.

It’s a useful process because job titles can often be misleading – either unclear or unspecific – and in large organisations it’s impossible for those in HR to know each job in detail.”

There are certainly plenty of wonderfully daft job titles out there. Here are a few of my favourites from articles on the subject at the Daily Mail, the Plain English Campaign, and the Daily Telegraph:

Ambient Replenishment Controllers Shelf Stackers
Foot Health Gain Facilitator Chiropodist
Knowledge Navigator Teacher
Beverage Dissemination Officer Barman
Colour Distribution Technician Painter and Decorator
Education Centre Nourishment Consultant Dinner Lady
Field Nourishment Consultant Waitress
Mortar Logistics Engineer Labourer
Petroleum Transfer Engineer Petrol Station Assistant
Transparency Enhancement Facilitator Window Cleaner

 

These are job titles that cry out for outbursts of righteous disrepect for the poor souls attached to them – even if they may not have been the ones to choose them. Maybe it’s an English trait, but we do as a nation appear have a healthy scepticism for pretention: when I worked as a Project Control Assistant for a major University, one academic took great care always to refer to me as an Assistant Control Projectionist (thus illustrating an ability to quickly discern my true role on the organisation’s behalf).

There are good reasons for changing job titles, not least clarity to those outside an organisation. Take the example of Sandra, a Senior Administration Assistant for a large local authority, who was mentioned in the ivillage.co.uk coverage of the Office Angels survey and feels her job title is a handicap:

It doesn’t reflect the level of responsibility I have or the variety of work I do. I manage six clerical staff, deal with enquiries from the public and am responsible for a sizeable budget. I particularly hate the word senior, it makes me sound old rather than able!’ She always describes herself as the office manager when telling people what she does, ‘It’s a more accurate reflection of the responsibilities I have.” 

But there’s a more serious point beyond tittering at other people’s self-importance. While transparency of description is a laudable aim, a pompous job title might reveal more than it intends. Proudly being an Executive Operations Controller might look good on your LinkedIn profile, but if your interactions with others – or your performance at a job interview or assessment centre that your self-promotion has secured – reveal that there’s a more mundane reality underneath … that gap between rhetoric and reality, and between claimed skills and demonstrated ability, might become more of an asset than a liability. Awkward, especially when you see the sentence that concluded the quote from Sandra:

I think having the word manager in my job title would give an application for a higher level post more credibility.”

It’s certainly set to remain a thorny subject. In the most recent article on the topic at the BBC website, Steven Overell, associate director of the Work Foundation, was happy to point a finger at his prime offender:

Human resources are the worst miscreants. They’re often responsible for escalating the jargon on their own jobs. I remember one HR manager whose title was ‘talent and transformation country manager’ and another ‘vice president HR (employment relations, outsourcing and change)’.”

Despite the CIPD’s remarks on the problems posed for job evaluation earlier in this post, their Angela Baron commented differently:

People can get very emotional about their job titles if it doesn’t reflect their level of seniority or responsibility. All sorts of menial jobs have quite sophisticated titles to make them feel their jobs are important. So on the Newcastle Metro, ticket inspectors are now called revenue protection officers. It has made their jobs sound more important – and why not?”

We understand the motivation point, and – within reason – the psychological reasoning. But, with our downbeaten commuters’ head on, we might point out that calling them ‘revenue protection officers’ also communicates to us that our money matters more than we do. But I’m sure that wasn’t the intention …

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