The truth about job title inflation

31 December 2013 -


Rambling monikers are a consequence of a changing economy in which it’s not always clear what we do

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There was a time when my job title consisted of one or two words, neither of which required further elucidation. Everybody knows what a journalist is, even if they don’t like them. Now my full title won’t fit on a business card and I have given up trying to explain to strangers exactly what I do.

I know I am not the only one to bemoan the increasing number of job titles whose prolixity was presumably intended to describe what the role did, but ended up obscuring more than it revealed – think of the poor receptionist who was told that she was to be her company’s welcoming agent and telephone intermediary.

And like many a retired Home Counties colonel (or head of militarily proactive international relations, perhaps), I have been known to snort with derision over job-title inflation. I can see the point of rebranding your sales manager as director of strategic business development if it impresses potential customers and helps your salesperson get a foot in the door. But I have a strong suspicion that some employers hand out better job titles as a cheaper option than a pay rise.

Gorillas in the mist

And once you have started with the lower level jobs, where do you stop? Even at the top, heads of department are now directors, while directors have become, in the US style, vice presidents. Chief executives have been joined by chief operating officers, chief talent officers and even chief geeks. One UK company even retains a chief gorilla.

Meanwhile, and with all due respect to the title of this magazine, the word “manager” has come to describe almost any job that is definitely not managerial. Data drawn from XpertHR Salary Surveys tends to show that it crops up most often among what would have been team leaders or supervisors, but has plenty of examples all the way down from there to entry-level roles.

A 2012 report for the Resolution Foundation alleged that in the first decade of the 21st century, the proportion of “managers” in the retail sector earning below £400 a week increased from 37% to nearly 60%. Which probably isn’t what my esteemed editor had in mind when he told me that the theme of this issue of the magazine was to be “rethinking management”.

It may never be practical to give the same legal protection to the title “manager” as already exists for nurse or architect. It may not even be desirable, let alone worth the effort.

But I do wonder how a finding from XpertHR’s recent study of the use of social media in job recruitment fits with these verbose and grandiose new coinages. The social network most widely used by employers after LinkedIn (78% of respondents to our survey) is Twitter (48%). That 140-character limit is going to present a real challenge.

Baking up confusion

Maybe one reason many of us have such long-winded job titles is that the world of work moves so much faster than language develops. Only recently has it become necessary to create the role of business systems analyst to translate what managers want their technology to do into language that can be understood by computer coders.

And maybe over time some good, short, possibly even single-word titles will emerge for these new jobs. There was a time when bread making was a purely domestic activity. As it became a specialist role in the economy, presumably people concluded that baker was the bit of the job that best defined it, rather than dough-maker, or flour-coalescing executive. Go back to the time when baker genuinely was a new occupation – in the days of Rome – and you will find that job titles such as pistor vied with artocopus and panifex in much the same way that most of us now use computer programmer, developer and coder almost interchangeably. Developer may well win out as the name with the most prestige, but we have not yet settled on a single term.

Where does all that leave us? Well, aside from handing the Daily Telegraph an opportunity to fulminate whenever it discovers a local authority advertising what sounds suspiciously like a politically correct sounding job at what will almost certainly be a mere fraction of the news editor’s salary, all these newfangled job titles probably aren’t really that important.

But if we are going to rethink management, perhaps we ought to find a new name for it, too.

Mark Crail is head of salary surveys and benchmarking services for XpertHR. To read the company’s most-recent surveys, visit its website

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