Is job title inflation becoming a pandemic?

Herman Singh believes we're living in an age of inflated job titles driven by lazy corporate strategy and megalomania.

The late 1990s brought with it true change in the way that firms do business. The advent of e-commerce and mobile technology both transformed the competitive landscape and with that came a dramatic need for new skills and roles. Roles like webmaster came and went but new specialists have since emerged in sustainably, user experience (ux), internet security, location-based services and even digital and social media management.

These were relevant changes and reflected the need for new roles that previously did not exist. But somewhere on this journey of recreation, we lost the plot. Occupants of older roles were envious. They also wanted to bask in the reflection of the new brilliant age and this brought with it a new form of madness. The new-age job title for old-age jobs

I’ve been watching the grandiose job-renaming wave of the last few years with a mixture of trepidation and bemusement. It appears to me to be an exercise in futility – like polishing old and run-down cars to make them go faster. Legacy firms are masquerading as modern technology startups. But, in effect, what it amounts to is mutton advertised as lamb – a sham.

There have been umpteen examples of cosmetic changes to titles and with no real substance in the evolution of roles. Sales is now coverage management. Personnel became HR and is now human capital. Product management is now innovation. Call centre management is now customer experience management. General managers are now managing executives. Training is now learning and development. Chief information officer became chief technology innovation officer and is now being called the chief platform officer. Everyone is now a VP of something or other, and nobody knows whether CCO stands for chief commercial, customer or compliance officer.

And we are now in another wave of job title inflations that are actually being fed by anxieties and egos on both sides of the employment marketplace – the employer and the employee.

For employers, it’s a substitute for true change. It is much easier to rename and restructure than to make real changes because at least the effort gives the impression of trying to evolve. Not wanting to be left behind, we chase the same mirage as new titles mean that we are young and modern. And it makes the organisational design team look busy and effective.

Ego-driven promotion

Employees feed this insatiable monster by chasing shinier titles or wanting to work for enlightened firms. In their minds, a new title equals a promotion. A highbrow title equates to a double promotion, helping to bolster CV feeding both their egos and bank accounts simultaneously.

That is why we will continue living in an age of rampant job title inflation. LinkedIn is awash with ‘founders’, ‘leaders’, ‘executives’ and ‘chiefs’, with some titles less reflective of reality than others. Why can’t the ‘founder’ of a small salon in Midrand, for example, simply refer to him or herself as the owner? A 2010 article in The Economist stated that the number of LinkedIn members with the title vice president grew 426 percent faster than the membership of the site as a whole between 2005 to 2009. The inflation rate for presidents was 312 percent and 275 percent for chiefs.

In PwC’s second edition of HR Quarterly 2017, Christelle Brunette warns against giving prospective employees a desired job title that not only is impressive on their curriculum vitae but also gives them a perception of false power and authority within the organisation.

“As a facilitator of PwC’s job-profiling, job evaluation and reward academy workshops, I tend to make it my life’s purpose to inform human capital professionals of the dangers of creating a job title, which they believe will entice the right kind of person into accepting a job offer from the organisation,” she writes.

This vicious circle was fed on both sides by FOMO - fear of missing out. Appearances became everything. So we pandered to the new age of digital transparency to dress up our organisational dolls in today’s fashions

The art of ‘simple’ is lost. Ask most customers how these changes have impacted them and you will see growing dissatisfaction with legacy firms. Productivity, revenue, profitability almost all measures of business success appear unchanged by these “upgrades”.

We have missed the greatest organisational lesson of all – structure follows strategy. Sadly strategy for most firms has remained unchanged at the core for decades. This renders the renaming circus questionable, costly and a time-consuming exercise of rearranging of deck chairs.

This article was originally published in CHRO Magazine, available in airport lounges around South Africa now.