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Unconventional Job Titles: Have They Gone Too Far?

A job title can be important and necessary to both company and employee, but it seems to me that in recent years many companies have gone too far. Some titles are overblown, nonsensical, too clever for their own good, or just plain silly:

  • At Subway, the people behind the counter are sandwich artists (it's even a registered trademark). Do you think they -- or their customers -- really see themselves that way?
  • I recently tried to chat online with Time-Warner customer service to get a simple question answered, and the pop-up told me I was being connected to an "analyst." I am not sure what he analyzed, but he told me he was "just in tech support" and couldn't help with my customer service question anyway.
  • Here's one that really irks me: "Customer Service Advocate." I have yet to call any company where a person with this title (or "Customer Satisfaction Specialist" or any similar variation) actually "advocated" for me.
  • Of course, the number and variety of clever executive-level titles has gotten almost absurd: Clorox has a Chief Innovation Officer, NASA has a Chief Knowledge Officer (well, it is rocket science, I suppose). I've seen Chief Visionary Officers, Chief People Officers and Chief Happiness Officers. It's almost like Mad Libs -- insert the middle word of your choice between the letters C and O.
I get it, I get it. Some of these are useful as external (marketing) tools and some as internal (cultural) differentiators or morale boosters. But are they effective in those capacities if people don't get them or find them to be incongruous or worse? I think that giving the title "advocate" to someone who can't or won't help me does more harm than good.

I am not completely against creative titles. For example, I think that the Apple "Genius Bar" is fantastic, especially because the Geniuses typically live up to the promise. I can even (begrudgingly) live with Ben and Jerry's "Chief Euphoria Officer," only because that company has been unfailingly consistent in its offbeat marketing, and I think it has a reputation as a genuinely quirky operation.

I don't place tremendous importance on titles within a company. In my company, everyone knows what everyone does and we all just work together; it's one of the benefits of a small business with a cohesive culture. If someone asks me what I do for a living, I don't say I am the Chief Executive Officer, President, Chairman or Founder of Skooba Design. I say "I make bags for laptops and other applications." 'Cause that's what I do.

But that being said, I do think that titles have value to employees, and serve important purposes when it comes to dealing with customers and others outside the company. In fact, anyone who does business internationally -- especially in Asia -- knows how seriously overseas business people take their titles. Business is still a much more formal affair in many countries than it is here, and people take great pride in their titles and put significant weight on the titles of others.

I think there should be three simple criteria for determining if a given title is appropriate:

1. Does it say, accurately and succinctly, what the person does? Would anyone reading this person's business card understand her role? Is a cutesy or vague title really necessary or appropriate and does it add any value or clarity?

2. Does it benefit, reward, honor and motivate the employee? It's old news that titles have significant value to employees -- particularly in office/management positions -- and I am a big believer in giving people titles that reflect their roles and contributions, authority and/or autonomy, and make them feel properly recognized, appreciated and proud. I know how much it meant to me the first time I got to hand someone a card that said "Vice President." Aside from pure status and recognition, titles can often have the same effect as wearing nice clothes -- they can make people feel and behave differently, even hold themselves to a higher standard.

3. Does it serve a purpose -- in the best, most appropriate way -- outside the walls of the company? If seniority and gravitas are important (as in the Asia example) is it better to be the boring old "Chief Marketing Officer," or the "Minister of Cool?" If authority helps close deals and land business, such as when an executive goes on the road with a sales representative, should the business card say something unambiguous, like "Vice President, Sales," or would "Customer Experience Architect" be a lot more interesting and just as effective?

I am all for fun and for not taking everything too seriously -- in fact, my very favorite company wrote the book on making business fun (but note: the CEO there is called... the CEO). And I recognize that different businesses can (and sometimes should) get away with different things. But business is still business and sometimes it's best to just call something what it is.

Am I the Chief Humbug Officer? Please share your thoughts, and if you've heard some other wacky titles, do throw them into the pot.

(Photo illustration by Skooba Design)

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