How a job title does and doesn't matter

MoneyWatch editors Jill Schlesinger and Jack Otter preview the upcoming employment report with blogger and economist Mark Thoma. They then turn to "Evil HR Lady" Suzanne Lucas for interviewing and resume tips.
(MoneyWatch) Dear Evil HR Lady,

My dilemma is that I have been doing the work of an HR person for over 7 years, but the company I work for refuses to adjust my title to align more with my actual duties. So, I went back to school and earned a bachelor's degree in business management (graduated in 2009). Amazingly enough, the degree hasn't helped my work situation. Right now, my own company, as well as others, don't seem to be able to see past my "administrative assistant" job title despite all of my experience. I've actually been told by more than one recruiter that all of my experience is "unofficial" because of my current job title and therefore cannot be considered. This has been frustrating to say the least. I am sick of doing the work of an HR rep, but getting paid as a secretary. Any advice for breaking out of the Administrative Assistant black hole?

First of all, any recruiter who told you that they can't consider your because your title wasn't right better not work for one of those companies with a "Chief Happiness Officer" or whatever crazy title is popular at the moment. Second, those recruiters are Lazy with a capital L. Because your title should be irrelevant: what matters is what you did.

For instance, many years ago, when my husband had been out of school for two years, he got a job offer with an advertising firm. Job title? AVP, Analytics. He questioned why the title was so high up for someone with only two years of experience. The recruiter explained that clients never wanted to deal with the lower level people, so basically AVP was their entry level title. He didn't end up taking that job, but having the title wouldn't have made his accomplishments any greater, any more than your lower level title takes away from your accomplishments.

You need to make sure that your resume details accomplishments, not job duties, as I suspect your official job duties probably haven't changed much even as your responsibilities and accomplishments have. Be clear about the level of work you've been doing. Do not worry about it looking funny against the administrative assistant title.

You can definitely address your lower title in your cover letter, explaining how you've been doing the job as an HR rep, even though your title hasn't changed. 

Now, it is nice when your job title matches what you actually do, and you can certainly ask again, but if you've been there 7 years without any luck in that area, it's probably not going to happen any time soon. Some bosses are as stingy with titles as they are with money. It doesn't cost your boss a blooming thing to change someone's title to match what they are doing, but for whatever reason your company doesn't want to do this.

This should be a big clue that this is not a nice place to work. They don't respect their employees. They don't recognize hard work. They limit their employees' potential by not giving accurate titles because there are idiotic recruiters out there who will reject you based on previous titles alone. You need to actively work on getting out of there. Don't, of course, quit your job until you have a job lined up, but do actively search for a better job.

Networking, of course, will be the best way to accomplish that. If nothing else, you can explain your title problem far better in person than you can in a cover letter. Don't approach an application with the idea that you are an admin trying to break into an HR role, but that you are an HR person with several years of experience. It will change your attitude and, as a result, will change how you project your image.

Have a workplace dilemma? Send your questions to EvilHRLady@gmail.com.