What’s in a Job Title?
A rose by any other name might smell just as sweet, according to Shakespeare, and a job by any other name probably won’t harm your career either. Job titles can seem like a big deal when you’re just starting out. It’s easy to be intimidated by a Vice President of Business Strategies or a Senior Family Nurse Practitioner at your new company. It’s just as easy to be discouraged when you’re brought on as a seemingly lowly production assistant. The important thing to keep in mind is that the responsibilities of a particular title can vary greatly between companies, industries, and even between departments within the same organization.
Don’t freak out
Generally, job titles don’t mean very much. They might imply a certain level of authority or establish a certain managerial hierarchy, but sometimes the only difference between a VP at one company and a director at another is the company they work for. At one magazine, the lowest editor on the totem pole might be called an editorial assistant, but at a smaller publication, she or he might be an associate editor. It sounds more prestigious, but the tasks completed by each person could be very similar. The moral of the story here is don’t sweat your entry title. Every company has different expectations and responsibilities for particular roles, so comparing the job title you have to the one you expected is probably a waste of time. This is why startups often have extremely non-traditional job titles like “social media rock star” or “kingpin of financial trading and technology solutions.”
It can sometimes be changed
If you really feel your job title isn’t an accurate reflection of what you do, you can definitely talk to your boss about changing it. But you need to approach the situation in a careful manner. First, come up with a list of your duties and responsibilities. Do they make sense under your job title? Are you considered an assistant manager, but really should be a managing director? This will vary by company, so do some research to figure out what title might capture what you do in a more accurate way.
After you’ve done the legwork, approach your boss by saying, “You know, my title is assistant project manager, but since I often take the lead while managing a team of programmers, maybe lead project manager would be a more suitable title.” Make sure you explain the rationale behind your thought process and any benefit it might bring to the company. Keep in mind that your boss may not have the authority to grant you a new title. Larger corporations might have a strict procedure or specific requirements for a title change, while a startup or smaller company will have more flexibility. It’s important to remember that unless you’re updating your resume or looking for a job, your day-to-day work experience probably won’t be affected by your official title.
Title versus money
Companies may use a fancy job title as a form of currency. For example, if you ask for a raise, but they offer you a job title change instead, it is generally a way of recognizing your work without a salary increase. A change of title costs the company nothing, but workers often feel like they’ve been rewarded if they receive a more prestigious job title. There are two schools of thought on this. One is that the job title promotion is better than nothing, and a better-sounding title may help you land a job with a higher salary if you decide to leave the company. The second is that a title change is just a buyout so you aren’t unhappy and try to leave the company.
Quirky job titles
There is a trend — particularly in startups — to create job titles that have a little more, well, flair to them than a traditional title. For example, instead of IT security manager, you might be the director of intrusion detection. Alternatively, some startups try to limit formal job titles in order to make sure no one decides a particular task is above or below their pay grade. The upside to these occasionally outlandish titles is that the flexibility sometimes allows for a fuller description of your role within the company.
There are many opinions about the importance of job titles, but at the end of the day, it’s best not to get too hung up on them, particularly early on in your career. Every industry has a secret system of code words and job titles that don’t translate into any other industry or company, so it becomes a matter of being comfortable with your own title. If that doesn’t work, it’s time to head to the boss’s office for a talk about how you can change it.