Ask Alto : What is a Director of First Impressions? Job title inflation… what’s really going on, and should it be encouraged?

June 08, 2023 Share this article:

Ask Alto

When a company decides that the front-of-house receptionist should instead be called the Director of First Impressions, it’s easy to smile wryly and wonder what they were thinking.

But the rise of fancy-sounding job titles – also known as job title inflation – is not just a fad. Fast Company reports that between 2019 and 2021, there was a 100% increase in the amount of job titles containing the word “Lead” and “Principal” in the tech industry. There was also a 25% increase in titles containing the word “Senior.”

Evolving job titles can sometimes be a response to social change. An air steward or stewardess is now a flight attendant, whether male or female. Similarly, a policeman or policewoman is now a police officer, reflecting a move to more gender-neutral language.

But other changes in job titles reflect a less noble human need: the desire for status. Corinne Klajda, Managing Partner / Accord Group Poland, points out that a job title represents status – so the more inflated a title is, the better.

There are other reasons for embellishing or exaggerating a job title:

  • Kladja says that the job market is candidate-driven. “Many employers try everything they can to woo candidates – and that includes a ‘sexy’ title.”
  • For job candidates, the ability to reflect a list of important-sounding job titles on a resume might help them stand out in a sea of job seekers.
  • The tech and creative industries and start-up culture have boosted the use of unconventional and attention-grabbing job titles.
  • Creative job titles can be seen as a way to boost brand identity.
  • A business might use job titles to influence perceptions of their own status (in addition to that of candidates). Albert Froom, Managing Partner at AltoPartners Netherlands / Leaders Trust, flags the addition of the word “global” to job titles, even when not relevant, as a way a business might overstate its reach.
  • An innovative title might empower more junior members of a team to step up and contribute beyond the call of duty. Junior members of staff are often on the front line dealing with customers and creating first impressions – and a funky job title might help.

There’s a downside though

Job title inflation can lead to ambiguity about job roles and responsibilities. Does a “Lord of All Things Technical” do the same job as a Head Unicorn Wrangler? (Answer: yes – they are both Chief Technology Officers). If the job title is vague and unclear, chances are the workplace will be filled with confusion and uncertainty.

The practice can also erode the value and significance of traditional job titles. The meaning of established titles is diluted, and employees might feel demotivated when their job titles lose their worth due to rampant inflation.

That lack of clarity in job titles can also harm recruitment processes. If the hiring organisation doesn’t know what a title on a resume means, or what job responsibilities it denotes, it can be harder to compare candidates with each other.

And meaningless titles can mean that worthwhile candidates don’t apply for the job at all, simply because they can’t tell what they might be expected to do, or because the amplification of the role makes them doubt their own abilities. This particularly affects woman candidates. A LinkedIn Gender Insights Report found that women apply for 20% fewer jobs than men despite similar job search behaviours. Minami Rojas writes that this could mean that women talk themselves out of jobs before they even apply. “Unlike their male counterparts, female professionals apply to jobs only if they are 100% qualified,” she writes. It’s easy to see how an opaque job title would cause a woman applicant to pause, wonder what’s expected and then move on.

Kladja’s advice to all candidates is simple: concentrate on the actual mandate, and ask about the work that needs to be done, rather than worrying about what the title might mean.

How companies can curb job title inflation

There are steps companies can take to curb the unnecessary growth of job titles:

Align titles appropriately. Ensure that recruiters and hiring managers are not actively inflating job titles and are instead interviewing and hiring candidates that match the experience level required for certain positions.

Plan ahead. Before interviewing, human resources teams should think through the role and its responsibilities. Simultaneously, they should be researching the appropriate pay for that position. If all this is done ahead of time, recruiters and hiring managers will have the tools they need to find the right candidates.

Explain the role clearly. When negotiating with candidates, be clear about the responsibilities of the role you are interviewing them for and how the candidate’s experience measures up.

Bridge to other benefits. When negotiating with a candidate who wants a fancier title, lay out the other benefits the opportunity offers. While a particular position might not be at the perceived level that a candidate wants, the company could instead offer plenty of career growth opportunities. Work on your company culture. Kladja’s advice is brief and to the point: “Build a company culture that is enticing and attractive to prospective candidates.” That way, what jobs are called will matter less.

Be transparent: Allowing people to see salary ranges for open positions from the start of the candidate journey may help counteract inflated titles by providing more transparency into the experience needed for the role, the job responsibilities, and what a career path at the company could look like, both in terms of salary and responsibility.

Ten inflated titles we love:

  • Oxford Comma Destroyer (Copywriter/Copy Editor)
  • Head of Schmoozing (VP of Business)
  • Chief of Other Stuff No One Wants to Take Care Of (COO Development)
  • Retail Jedi (Retail Sales Associate – or perhaps just Salesperson)
  • Chief Chatter (Call Centre Manager)
  • Chief Happiness Officer (Head of HR)
  • C3PO – Chief Power Plugs & Patches Officer (CTO)
  • Software Ninjaneer (Software Developer)
  • Social Mediaholic (Social Media Coordinator)
  • Indentured Rockstar (Administrative Assistant)
Albert Froom
Global Practice Head Family Owned Businesses AltoPartners Driebergen