Kim Jong – un the North Korean dictator it’s not normally seen as a trendsetter however, he clearly leads the pack in job title inflation. The BBC reports that the 37 year old has more than 1,214 different titles; titles such as President of North Korea, Chairman – State of Affairs, General Secretary of State, Executive Policy Council Chair, External General Secretary, Politburo Chief, General Secretary of State, State of Affairs Commissioner, Guardian Deity of the Planet……. and the list goes on and on and on.
We are all very cognizant of economic inflation. As a matter of fact we talk and worry about it every day but, one thing we don’t realize is when it comes to job titles we live in an age of rampant inflation. It seems to me that a number of people I meet is a chief or a president in some variety. Title inflation has been producing it’s vocabulary for years with an abundance of “up-titling” and “title – fluffing” while producing a technological molecule. As one of my clients said to me, “there’s a simple formula; just take your current job title – mix in a few grand words such as global, international, interface, and customer and voila – you have new title”. Some of the best titles I’ve heard are; Social Media Ninja, Chief Know It All, Chief Happiness Officer and Chief Scrum Master.
Title inflation has been around forever but it traditionally accelerates during recessions. That happened in the 80s, the 90s and into the year 2000. Some refer to it as “Title Creep” or Title – Fluffing”. In either case this is a practice of making roles sound more attractive by giving them important sounding titles and although these labels appear to be impressive they don’t accurately describe the job, the expertise nor the skill set.
Pat DiDomenico, Business writer for the Business Management Daily out of Irvine, California, reports that in the OfficeTeam survey conducted in June, 2019; 510 Human Resource Professionals reported that 63 % of organizations engage in some type of “title – fluffing” and more than half of these companies do it without awarding salary increases.
Philip Coogan, a British journalist and business news correspondent states that when you walk into the head offices of companies like a Coca-Cola, Marriott, Hudson Yards and Kodak; you expect to be greeted by a receptionist however, such is not the case. You are greeted by someone far grander – the Executive Lobby Ambassador. Their responsibilities include greeting all visitors at the front desk while insuring a curated experience for visitors. Even the funeral business is getting into the act. When I went to visit my uncle in Detroit, Michigan who had passed away at the ripe age of 92 – I was greeted by what I thought was the Undertaker or perhaps Funeral Director. Much to my surprise I wasn’t; I was greeted by the Director of Last Impressions………………………….…you can’t make this stuff up.
Title inflation happens for a reasons that are understandable. When organizations decide that they don’t want pay more money or when money is tight, a change in title is a way of recognizing and employees efforts in a frugal manner. A more prestigious job title at times can make someone’s position more appealing in the expansive and demanding job market.
Zanny Minton Beddoes, Economist Business writer reports that since 2009 the title inflation rate for presidents is 312%, for chiefs 275% and for the ancillary team members – 523%. Her examples of ancillary team members refers to; Baristas at Starbucks are now referred to as “partners”, staff at Walmart and now known as “associates”, employees at Meta are now known as Metamates, Lavatory cleaners are “sanitation consultants”, Subway sandwich makers are now referred to as “sandwich artists” and customers at grocery stores are now “guests.”
“the currency of an inflated job title quickly loses value. A senior vice president is someone in middle management; an assistant vice president is three years removed from college or university; an associate vice president has just mastered the alphabet. More and more words need to be added to connote seniority. Senior executive vice president is the title which would not exist if not for the massed ranks of vice president wrestling below. Absurdities have to be conjured up just stand out from the crowd. Titles like chief evangelist, director of storytelling and chief creativity officer, just to name a few.”
Beddoes points out that given the economic downturn as well as the pandemic; bosses are doling out fancier titles as a substitute for pay increases and bonuses and there are also structural reasons for this trend. The most basic is the growing complexity of the business world. Many not only have presidents and vice presidents for this and that; they also have them for specific product lines, various regions and procurement strategies. Also, for managers who no longer have anyone to manage, inflated titles satisfy their ego. Everybody from the executive suite downward wants to be fluffed up in their résumé as a hedge against being terminated.
Fancy job titles also signal to the external world that the organization is in tune with the latest fashion or fad. I currently connected with a food processing company who no longer has a consumer concerns division. It is now called the “Division of Apology” and is led by the Chief Apology Officer. Another organization no longer has a Human Resources Division, it is now referred to as the Division of Human Behaviour and Capital and is led by the Chief of Human Behaviour & Capital.
Title inflation is not only laughable it can also cause workplace challenges. There are larger costs than comedy, confusion and mental uneasiness. The currency of inflated titles can swiftly lose its value. Doling out fluffed – up titles to people will cause resentment amongst others and have adverse effects on the hiring process. Fluffed – up titles diminish our ability to see job progression and bona fide experiences.
These titles do not speak to a person’s skill set and results. Fluffed – up titles also put good candidates off. An analysis by tech recruitment and software skills company Datapeople of New York found that a proportion of women in applicant pools drop as much as 27 % when job titles become “fluffier”. There is also another “elephant in the room”. Remember that organizations introduced fluffed – up titles as a substitute for being frugal with money. However, as the cost of living increases – employees quickly realize they cannot spend their title in the supermarket or department store so – they leave. This lends credence to the fact that money may not be a motivator but it certainly is a stabilizer.
In summary title inflation, title – fluffing, up – titling, etc violates the English language in the worst possible way but, it may be par for the corporate world. It may also be a small price to pay for some type of corporate harmony. The “hook” is that the familiar problem of monetary inflation apply to the job title as well. The benefits of giving people a fancier fluffed up title are short-lived but the harm it can do is much more residual.
Employees become very cynical about these monikers especially when they are received in lieu of pay increases or bonuses. As the job market becomes more transparent, how do you determine what the going rate is for the Chief Lobby Ambassador? Far from providing people with more security, fancier titles make them more expendable. Companies hesitate in terminating the employment of an Engineer, of a Sales Representative or of a Product Manager but, I don’t think they’ll hesitate in doing away with the Chief Scrum Master. The essence of title – fluffing is the same as economic inflation, it devalues everything it touches.
About The Author.
Nicholas Pollice is President of The Pollice Management Consulting Group located in Niagara, Ontario, Canada. An international facilitator, presenter and consultant, he is known as an operations management leader and coach. Nicholas conducts programs in leadership, supervision, communication, negotiation, conflict resolution and strategic planning. He has been a international consultant since 1989 and is the author of several professional publications. His presentations have been consistently ranked in the top 10% throughout North America. See Nicholas’ bio, his other publications and services on the PMCG. Website at www.pollicemanagement.com