Killing off job titles: Let’s get practical!

Job titlesIn a previous post I argued for doing away with job titles. They’re rarely relevant, they say very little about what you do and they can lead to internal competition and bickering.

The marketing department at Quicken Loans (America’s 2nd best workplace according to Fortune Magazine) just did this and liked the results.

Now, a fatwa on job titles may sound great in theory, but how could it work in practice in a large organization?

Rick asked some great questions in a comment:

I’m trying to understand the difference between calling someone “The guy in charge of fixing things in the plant when they’re broken” vs. “Maintenance Manager” or the like. The former is long, the latter is short. If you say he or she can self-title as “Chief Fixer” well that’s still a title, isn’t it?

Now supposing we have one opening for a Production Engineer (actual title) for a plant in Georgia and another opening for a Process Engineer (also actual title) for a plant in North Carolina. Two distinct positions, though both engineers and both working in a plant environment. If I want to apply for one of those positions, it’s valuable for me to know I can discard the one and not the other based on my knowledge of what the jobs are in general and how they link to my skills, yes?

Several years ago, I worked for a (now bankrupt) company that worked in the dot com space. The company was the product of a multitude of large and small mergers. At some point, there were over 117 job titles in the company as one of the merged entities, which itself was just a conglomeration of small mom and pop dot coms, never streamlined titles in the organization. The result? Absolute confusion. And, as I say, the company is bankrupt (for a variety of reasons, of course, not just titles).

Let’s go back to the example of the company I currently work for and the concept of the matrix. You suggest that people find each other “more randomly and serendipitously.” That’s terrific…unless there are deadlines to meet, markets to pursue and stiff competition. Then, I want to know who to include on the team *now* in order to get the work done. Offer me a way that happens without at least a cursory glance of people/positions/titles and I’m interested. That means knowing who is available in Europe, Asia, the Americas across a variety of business groups and units, with a population of over 20,000 employees. Random isn’t going to cut it.

As you see, I’m still not convinced, but I’m willing to keep the dialogue going as I’m intrigued and really want to understand how this works on a practical (not abstract) level.

Good question! If there are no formal job titles, how will you find, say, all the engineers with a certain background? And how do you handle the chaos that comes with people having no job titles or choosing their own?

I have some thoughts on this, but I’d love to know what you think. Can large organizations live without formal job titles? How would this work in practice? What would the organization gain or lose?

11 thoughts on “Killing off job titles: Let’s get practical!”

  1. I think the job title is the least relevant part of the two positions. Many job titles sound great and then you read the description and you may think does this description really equal that title. Some of expectations of the job are really what is important for determining the best fit for the person, but I have certainly had motivated individuals come through the door with different skills than what I thought we needed and they have been extraordinary in that role. My only suggestion is to describe some of the behaviors that have made others successful in that role and challenges that the applicant may expect. This help to identify people that are interested in the type of work you are looking to be done, rather than the title associated with the job. It is important to keep open the possibility that the job can be what the individual aspires to make it. Being creative in their personal tile helps to set a direction as to where they are going.

    To your point, when looking at jobs in one of the job search engines people may not look for Creator of Web Picassos.

  2. I’m currently reading a great book called, “The Future of Management” by Gary Hamel, which goes into many examples about companies that have done exactly this, no titles.

    You’re couple of questions about how would you find this or do that, seem interested still in the title not the person’s ability. Who really cares about the background of a person for a particular engineering role. Why does the background matter if they have some evidence that they are right for the job? That who cares question should really be asked for all these things when the title becomes a concern.

  3. I think the book Joy at Work explains this pretty well when it lays out the dynamics of its “honeycomb” structure at AES. With big companies I believe the change isn’t so much in the loss of title as it is in the change of culture that it is a result of. What it seems like these companies are saying is that all of our people are talented and capable of making important decisions. If you reduce the amount of levels between the front lines and the CEO and reduce the limits on authority each individual has you may find that the information will flow more freely throughout the company. If you need something done in another state or country you need only ask the head person in that particular office to build you a team. Just because someone has the title doesn’t necessarily mean they are the best one for the job you need done. If you don’t have so many titles, leaders are able to make the decision about who’s best for what you require and you will probably get better results because of it. not to mention your people will be happier because they made the decision on who was best for the job instead of some corporate executive plucking a name off the organization chart to head up something when he might not be the best one for the job. I find that front lines generally know each other and each other

  4. I work for a large corporation. I found the idea to relinquish titles interesting. One way in which this could work is if the enterprise employee directory (LDAP or other) can provide faceted search, based on a combination of criteria defined by both the employer and the employee.

    My division may define me as ‘engineer’, ‘sales’, ‘software’ and ‘americas’. I could then add a few defining keywords (ok, tags) myself, given my unique technical and soft skills.

    Someone searching a way to build their team ‘now’ could then search a website linked to the LDAP for some keywords (tags), and based on those, move to the next step… ‘hire’ me.

    They could even be able to tag me (privately or publicly) after they get to know me with some additional keywords, based on our experience working together.

  5. That last idea about tagging is actually the closest I’ve heard to a practical resolution to this. I don’t see any company actually investing the effort and money involved to do that just to get rid of titles (though there are obviously other reasons to initiate that kind of thing… the title coups would have to be a side-effect).

    In the end, though, I still don’t think it’s as efficient from an administrative perspective, and in large companies (though it rarely feels like it) efficiency is always the goal.

    Conceptually, I’d jump at the chance to make up my own title, and in many ways it would help morale and in some ways be more clear than traditional titles. However, I really think the only way it would work in reality is if you were wide open in creating your public facing “business title” but the HR system still had an official title for you that was more traditional. For example, though I didn’t choose it myself, my business title is Learning Platform Professional, but my title in the HR system is Trainer 3.

  6. Titles are so funny. I am in the mortgage industry (while there still is such a thing!). I have been with the same company through mergers and acquisitions for two decades. I have seen the official job title be loan officer, loan consultant, sales person, loan originator, etc. My favorite of all time is the people that NEEEEED to put Senior Loan Officer on their card… there is a class that you have to pass!!!! LOL. When I was writing loans myself and before the gatekeeper of the business card ordering was on guard, I used to have Loan Wizard put on there. I made loan documents appear in title like magic when it was supposed to take a week to get them there. Anyway, most people liked it. There were a few crap-apples who didn’t want to work with someone who “obviously wasn’t a professional.” Hey, Loan Wizard successfully kept those people from being my customers!

    Titles are as much about power and ego as anything else. It is something that people who are “job attainers” strive to capture. It is a fleeting piece of satisfaction in my book.

  7. I work in an org where titles are a complete mess. I have peers who are VP’s who have maybe half the responsibility that I do. I define strategy and direction and then my bosses, who have done comparatively little, go off and debate it with zero input from me.

    I know more and do more and am responsible for more, but the title keeps me from the appropriate level of dialog. In the absence of titles and false hierarchy, I could just do what needs to do be done without checking with people above me who actually know less about the issues and options than I do. So, yes, do away with titles and just focus on getting stuff done by the people who can do it.

  8. As far as job title being the same as actual job responsablities, I have never experienced this in 18 years in it.
    Over the last 8 years alone, at the same company, I have had the following titles:
    Contract programmer
    Senior Business Systems Developer
    Senior Project Manager
    Senior Systems specialist
    Applications Manager
    IT manager

    Until they added manager to my title and had people report to me my job responsibilities were all the same and I still have so many different responsibilities I don’t know what type of title I would make up for myself.
    My responsibilities include the following:
    Project manager
    system architect
    business analyst
    data miner
    warehouse and operations liaison
    etc etc etc

    So if I quite today and they pasted the job for a IT manager, would you expect to have to do all of those roles?

    As for who to invite to meetings, in my 18 years in IT invariably my manager would get invited to meetings and if he/she went then I would have to follow up with whom ever had the meeting, or my manager simply delegated the meeting to me.

    Titles tell you nothing about what a person does.

    “People who are unable to motivate themselves
    must be content with mediocrity, no matter
    how impressive their other talents.
    Andrew Carnegie

  9. In regards to titles, my last company allowed employee’s to choose their own, self-descriptive titles. This was both potentially informative (based on what the employee was doing), and how ‘important’ the title made the person sound relative to the actual work they do. As long as certain boundaries are observed (janitor not claiming to be president…etc), this approach can help.

    Additionally, might be a section for ‘tags’ — both self-added and those added by other people — not describe the person, but what work they are perceived as doing by those who interact with them. This can allow searches by keywords(tags) — either on self-descriptions, others descriptions, or both, but simply being able to define one’s own “title” can be a great first step as long as people know the title reflects that person’s idea of what they do.

    Just a suggestion that might more accurately represent “reality” and enable better internetworking. If you wanted to make the process even more compex, but accurate, you could even have other people rate (1-10) how well a ‘tag’ or ‘label applies to someone, and(or) a rating of the person of other people’s ratings of how well they think the label/tag applies.

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