Inflated Job Titles: Helpful or Hot Air? What HR Pros Should Know
By Kirsten Slyter on 11/15/2021
If you’ve spent time perusing job boards lately, you’ve probably seen some job titles that seem a bit overblown for what the role entails. A custodial engineer? Crockery cleaning operative? While these creative interpretations of what most would call a janitor or a dishwasher might get a shrug or bemused smile from most who see it, there’s more to the subject from a human resources (HR) professional’s point of view.
Do these inflated job titles really help recruiters find better candidates or improve employee morale? Or can they backfire and lead to more harm than good?
In this article, we’ll walk through what an inflated job title is, some of the more amusing examples you’ll see out there and how the practice affects both employees and employers.
What is an “inflated” job title?
“Inflated” or “self-elevating” job titles are simply fancy or important-sounding titles some companies opt to give employees, typically under the guise of boosting morale. Though these titles might sound nicer than their more conventional counterparts, they can also be misleading. The words “warrior,” “engineer” and “manager” are often tacked on to job titles that don’t involve any traditional managing or engineering (or physical combat, for that matter).
Keep in mind that there’s no true line in the sand for what counts as an inflated job title. Some roles with amusing, unconventional names may not be completely overstating the nature of the position—they just stick out.
Another form of title inflation often occurs in small start-up organizations. For example, if you start fresh out of college as the only person on the team with information technology skills and are designated as the Chief Technology Officer. This looks nice on a LinkedIn® profile, but it might not hold up under scrutiny.
Inflated job title examples
So what takes the cake for job title inflation? In 2015, The Plain English Foundation—a communications company in Sydney—assembled a list of their favorite “fancy pants” job titles to highlight some overblown examples:1
- Director of first impressions: Receptionist
- Loss prevention officer: Store security officer
- Meat distribution engineer: Deli-counter staff
- Waste removal engineer: Trash collector
- Customer happiness hero: Customer service representative
- Vision clearance engineer: Window washer
- Brand warrior: Marketing associate
- Digital prophet: Marketing manager
- Brand evangelist: Marketer
- Knowledge navigator: Teacher
- Crockery cleaning operative: Dishwasher
- Word herder: Copywriter
- Web kahuna: Web developer
While some of these may be a little more out there and rarer than others on the list, you get the picture—there’s been a trend of moving away from job titles that may sound mundane in some organizations.
Why do organizations use inflated job titles?
If you’ve found yourself rolling your eyes or wrinkling your nose at some of the titles above, you’re probably wondering why organizations bother with the practice. Let’s explore some of the potential positives and drawbacks to taking this approach.
How they can help
While the benefits may not universally apply to every oddly named job role, there’s at least some rationale behind this practice. For one, some roles like “paper boy” and “garbage man” come with unnecessarily gendered language, so alternatives like “delivery specialist” and “waste removal associate” present a nice sounding way to pivot.
Another potential benefit is that these titles can be an attempt to reframe the conversation for roles. For example, being a “business development associate” instead of a “salesperson” for lower-level retail sales roles may help put the focus on how your work influences business growth, rather than how it influences your individual sales quota.
Additionally, employers may see the use of unique job titles across the company as one piece of building a larger company culture—like using “teammates” instead of “employees” to highlight the collective effort within an organization. For organizations looking to differentiate themselves and highlight their creative culture, you may see terms like “rock star,” “alchemist” and “magician” in the job title mix.
Whether or not the use of inflated or creative job titles is actually effective at accomplishing the above really comes down to a case-by-case basis. The positives of moving away from using “garbage man” are pretty easy to understand, but it might be best to use caution before penciling in “ninja” and “wizard” to job titles across the org chart.
How they can hurt
While an elaborate job title might seem nice at face value, that title can also ring hollow and even seem insulting. If a company offers fancy titles to make up for what it doesn’t offer in actual pathways for advancement, growth and earning potential—look out. This patronizing behavior can be a source of outright resentment.
This is a challenge that can present itself with smaller companies that don’t have a lot of money or room for growth. For example, the sole marketing specialist at a company might become the chief marketing officer, or the bookkeeper will be called the chief financial officer, CFO, even if the CEO is handling actual CFO duties and is the only one getting paid a C-suite salary.
While these title boosts might not bother anyone inside the company, an inflated job title can cause issues once they venture outside of the organization. For one, they might not actually be qualified to perform the duties of a similar, non-inflated job title at another organization. Additionally, an inflated job title on a resume can raise eyebrows and create headaches for employees and recruiters alike—it’s not always easy explaining how or why you went from “director of sales” to “regional sales associate.” In some cases, this means recruiters will need to spend more time digging into why there’s a discrepancy between a candidate’s job title, duties and skill level.
Another potential drawback to the practice is if an employee does use their currently inflated job title to land a similar-sounding position (with increased pay and responsibilities) at another organization, the former employer is back at square one trying to find a replacement. That’s regardless of whether the departing employee successfully transitions into the new role.
For organizations looking to bring in new employees, an inflated job title may confuse and disappoint applications if the role turns out to be a lower-level position than they were expecting. Ultimately, that can end up wasting time and money in the recruiting process.
To inflate or not to inflate?
A job title might not seem like that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things, but those few little words next to an employee’s name can have an impact—good or bad. When assigning job titles to roles within an organization, employers need to take care and consider the potential pros and cons of these nontraditional naming conventions.
For organizations that want to try branching out from typical naming conventions, putting the power into the hands of employees is one simple way to avoid some of the potential drawbacks. By asking for employee input in a structured way, you may be able to have employees reflect on their purpose within the organization and land on a job title that doesn’t feel patronizing or out of place. It’s a fine line to walk—so a heavy-handed approach from the top-down may be risky.
Help drive substantive change
While some overinflated job titles can certainly be a source of amusement for some, there’s plenty for HR pros and organizational leaders to consider when determining job titles. Ultimately, the way an employer treats an employee is likely to mean more than the title on their email signature.
Human resources professionals often have a seat at the table when organizations make impactful decisions like this. Whether they’re determining job titles, choosing a cost-effective benefits package or developing a training program to build employee skills, the human resources field is focused on the employees who keep companies running smoothly.
If you’re interested in the factors that influence employee morale, you may be right for this field. If you’re considering a people-focused career, check out our article “12 Rewarding Reasons to Work in HR” to learn more about what makes this field appealing.
1Neil James, “Fancy-pants Job Titles” The Plain English Foundation. 2015 [accessed October 2021] https://www.plainenglishfoundation.com/documents/10179/73292/Fancy-pants_job_titles.pdf
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