Tag Archives: Job Titles

What Shakespeare Can Teach Us About Job Titles

Who knew William Shakespeare knew so much about human resources and compensation? Seriously. If you don’t believe me, just read this line from Romeo and Juliet:

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

I don’t mean to take us back to freshman English class—I just want to highlight Billy the Bard’s point with this famous line: it’s the thing that counts, not the name.

Unfortunately, when it comes to job titles, Shakespeare’s logic doesn’t quite hold up. The title we give a job is important. A good title not only describes what you do, it also sheds light on your rank in an organization. A bad title, on the other hand, does neither. (When was the last time you met someone who was a “District Widget Controller” or some such thing, and you had to give up trying to figure out what it is they even do?)

Would a Compensation Level by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet?

Of course, job titles go hand-in-hand with compensation levels like roses go hand-in-hand with sweet smells. But once money is involved, things get dicey: the more we inflate people’s job titles, the more people expect to be compensated to match their job title.

Any HR professional who’s dealt with mergers, acquisitions, reorganizations, or downsizings knows that any organizational upheaval leads to tricky changes in job responsibilities and even trickier changes in job titles.

Even without organizational change, maintaining control over the standards for an organization’s job titles is surprisingly crucial to controlling labor costs and employee satisfaction. Overinflated job titles, for example, often fail to reflect the work being performed, and can cause endless troubles.

Therefore, how do we go about cleaning up, consolidating, and controlling job titles?

It’s not as hard as you might think. Just follow these 6 rules for accurate job titles.

1. Make It Descriptive

Simply communicate the work being done and ensure the title is well-aligned with the content of the job. To make things simple, state the level (Senior, for example) and the type of job (Playwright, for example). Senior Playwright isn’t a bad gig—just ask Shakespeare.

2. Avoid Fancy Titles In Lieu of a Promotion

Imagine you invite someone to a fancy restaurant, but when you get to the table, you’re served with something from the back of the fridge. That’s what superficially inflated titles are like. It’s demotivating, confusing, and it’s all but worthless compared to a pay increase.

3. Manage Your Managers

This is a hard and fast rule I urge you to follow: if someone is a non-exempt employee on your payroll, do not call them a manager. That’s a huge red flag and could trigger a Fair Labor Standards Act audit, which you do not want any part of.

4. Decouple Benefits from Titles

Don’t tie employees’ bonus targets, office size, and vacation time to their job title. All that does is turn peoples’ energy to the wrong things. For example, if everyone with a Director in their job title gets a 5% bigger annual target bonus than people with Manager in their title, you’ll likely feel a constant pressure from your Managers for title inflation.

5. Keep Job Titles Official

Similar to making job titles descriptive, you should have some consistency with job titles in your organization and job titles across the market. That way, when you match your organization’s jobs with compensation surveys, you’ll be more likely to find accurate fits.

For instance, while you may have some variety of Senior Administrative Assistants in each department with more specific titles, for matching purposes, they should all be grouped under this one title.

6. Give a Little Leeway

While you’ll still want to keep internal job titles in check, many employees may feel more confident and perform better with an external title they can show off to customers, even if it may be slightly inflated in comparison to their official company position. This is particularly true for customer- or vendor-facing employees. Cut loose a little, as long as it doesn’t get out of hand.

Changing job titles can be tricky, emotional stuff, and it’s not to be taken lightly. Make sure you work with your Managers to get the necessary support you need, and consider engaging some outside help with research and recommendations as needed.

And if you need to stop and smell the roses, Shakespeare has you covered.

Note: If you enjoyed this article, check out my new bestselling HR book Pay Matters: The Art and Science of Employee Compensation.


© 2020 David Weaver. All rights reserved.