Page last updated at 11:50 GMT, Friday, 26 February 2010

Can you justify your job title?

Business people celebrating
Perhaps a game of job title bingo?

By Tom de Castella

The economic gloom means a squeeze on salaries. But employers may try to keep staff on side with beefed-up job titles by way of compensation.

Instead of "what do you do?" today this question may be phrased in a subtly different form: "what's your job title?" The answer may be as clear as mud, for 21st Century job titles can be a verbal minefield.

Yawning woman
Unpaid overtime repaid with a new title

Job title inflation is everywhere. Last week the Plain English Campaign received a local authority job advert from a member of the public for a "person-centred transition facilitator". "We debated for hours what this means. It might be a social worker dealing with disabled children?" says a spokesman.

Other examples from its files include ambient replenishment controller and regional head of services, infrastructure and procurement. Also known as shelf stacker and caretaker.

And in her review of 2009, the Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway awarded job title of the year to a journalism student whose business card read "Life explorer, multimedia storyteller, experience architect".

While some achieve absurd job titles all by themselves, others have absurdity thrust upon them. Newspapers' job adverts reveal a muster station of longwinded titles from the jargonistic - transformation project manager (reablement) - to the comically contradictory - head of offending services - or the downright weird - generic DIP practitioner.

Man looks at Jobcentre Plus vacancies
A vacancy for a... what?

One might argue that at a time of economic crisis, job titles are irrelevant - all that matters is having a job. And a new title - particularly if it signals extra responsibility - can make an employee feel more valued in the absence of a salary rise.

Natalie Evans, deputy director of the thinktank Policy Exchange, believes complicated job titles are bad for society. "I'm somewhat sceptical that giving someone a ridiculous job title make a difference to the value we see in our job. It can mean people aren't clear on what they're supposed to be doing. And it undermines public trust because we can't find out whom to talk to at an organisation."

Because of the pressure on public finances, the more bizarre job titles may disappear. "There'll be a sharper focus on what people do and their titles. Both the private and public sector will have to focus on core business. So it may be these jobs will simply cease to exist."

Up-titling

But Stephen Overell, associate director of the Work Foundation, says the days of the self-evident career - the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker - are all but gone.

Handing over business card
Can your job title fit comfortably on a business card?

"The reason these titles are changing is because work is becoming more cognitively complex and developing its own structure and jargon. And common experience is becoming rarer as companies try to find niches and grow increasingly specialised."

Yet there is another crucial factor at play. Status, and the desire to flatter. "It's often things like 'partnership relationship manager', a job that might once have been done by a secretary, so there's title inflation at work."

The Plain English Campaign notes the increasing number of jobs carrying the suffix "officer" in the past 20 years, particularly among public sector workers.

But does it matter? "I don't think there's anything wrong with that at an individual level," says Mr Overell. "But at a general level it tends to confuse, to make things opaque that ought to be made simple."

He holds one group responsible. "Human resources are the worst miscreants. They're often responsible for escalating the jargon on their own jobs. I remember one HR manager whose title was 'talent and transformation country manager' and another 'vice president HR (employment relations, outsourcing and change)'."

But Angela Baron, of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says long titles seek to explain what a worker actually does.

"People can get very emotional about their job titles if it doesn't reflect their level of seniority or responsibility. All sorts of menial jobs have quite sophisticated titles to make them feel their jobs are important. So on the Newcastle Metro, ticket inspectors are now called revenue protection officers. It has made their jobs sound more important - and why not?"

Verging on parody

However, such an approach leaves employees open to ridicule. It takes one back to the Victoria Wood sketch in which Hugh Laurie's pompous character - demoted to working in the canteen - exclaims: "I've a challenging new role… I'm very much looking forward to delivering popular yet high quality toast."

Hugh Laurie in the canteen
Hugh Laurie up-titles his new role

Indeed, job titles seem to be in danger of slipping into parody, says Mr Overell.

Take David Brent, the poster boy for management jargon. Ricky Gervais's creation understood the importance of one's job title. Whenever his subordinate Gareth Keenan introduced himself as "assistant regional manager", Brent would interject "assistant to the regional manager".

But Ian Jack, the former editor of literary magazine Granta, says the tide may be turning against work that spawns woolly titles.

"Nowadays you might ask if a lot of paid work is strictly necessary. We've had such a false belief in the service industries that we have all kinds of esoteric functions like 'head of access and enrichment'. If we can't understand it after five minutes of thought, what does that say?"

Mug with a one word job title - boss
Short, sweet and to the point

So two trends - the shortage of skilled craftspeople, and the huge cost of expanding higher education - may start to change the very nature of work. "The great pressure on the public purse means the target of getting 50% of school leavers to go to university has gone forever."

For Mr Jack - who left school and got a job on the local paper - that's nothing to mourn. He complains of a Britain in which "the products of long educations sit on trains fiddling with symbols on their laptop screens or making self-important calls to say they are running late for the meeting".

The new economic reality, and a revival of trades and crafts, could begin to reverse that - and perhaps rehabilitate the humble but proud one-word job title. "For me 'reporter' has always been the finest job description you could have," he says.


Below is a selection of your comments.

I had "senior" added to the start of my job title last year when "only" would have been more accurate. I presume it's in recognition of my hair turning grey at 32.
Peter, Notts

For a few glorious weeks I basked under the title of "Global Troubleshooter". Immensely satisfying.
Tori

I'm the Group TSR Undertakings UKB Migrations Roadmap Lead. I think it slightly implies something about morticians walking their pet geese south for the winter. It's really nothing to do with that.
Kat Gregg, Coventry

My job title is Administration Co-Ordinator. My friends asked me what the difference was between that and my old job, where I was a Senior Administrator. The difference is, simply, that with this one I get a lower salary, but more help from people who's efforts I 'co-ordinate'. Whereas my old job had higher pay (because of the word senior) but more stress, higher demands, expected unpaid overtime and less help.
Kate Jones, Lancaster, UK

My job title is: Finance Analyst & BOM Maintainer. It makes sense in the sector I work in, but I imagine is quite unclear to anybody else.
John Andrew, Liverpool

My previous job title was "teacher" but I have recently been looking to change career and have been confronted with reams of job titles which mean absolutely nothing to me. For every application I have made I have had to spend extensive time on the internet researching what that job might actually be. Amusing yes, but a serious point is that it all makes it very difficult for someone wanting to transition from one career to another. I'll start my new job soon - Advice and Support Officer (Systems and Operations Management). I'd be lying if I said I knew exactly what that title means.
Becky, Manchester, England

I went to a interview last week for a job titled "Facilities Administrator"; once this role was explained, it is actually run-of-the-mill: Assistant.
Sarah, Oxford

Several years ago I used to work with a colleague who had the job title - Head of Knowledge Creation. Surprisingly he was actually quite a modest person.
Mark Taylor, Cambridge, UK

County-wide Physical Disability and Sensory Services Business Support Assistant.
In short, Administrator.
G Johnston, Cambridge, UK

I am a dinner lady but my official job title is lunchtime supervisor.
Joan Rivers, Burton on Trent

When I was in the Navy they changed my title from Fleet Chief Radio Mechanician to "Warrant Officer Weapons Engineer (Action Data, Communications and Electronic Warfare). My name badge was so long I kept listing to port.
Mike Sweeney

My boss in the bank was always going on about targets and "vision" and as I didn't have a job title he was thrilled when I came up with my own - Sales, Lending and Vision Executive. Of course when I put it in as the reference in a letter I got into trouble for using the acronym SLAVE.
Isla Biggs, Durham

The NHS has its own ridiculous job titles. I am currently a senior healthcare technical officer and on Monday I shall become healthcare science associate practitioner. Which do you think is more senior? The answer is neither. They are pretty much the same job at the same level, just different areas.
Rebecca, Leeds

I am currently a Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner. Previously while in the same role I have been, a Low Intensity Worker, a Primary Care Mental Health Worker and a Graduate Mental Health Worker. I think when new roles such as mine are created, the language is not there to accommodate it, with jobs such as nurse or taxi driver the language is in place so it makes sense.
Helen, Hertfordshire

The funniest one I read at the bottom of an email the other day was "Reputation Manager" - I wonder what Jane Austen would have made of that.
Ellen, Reading

For many years I was a "Guest Services Agent"... I was a hotel receptionist (yes the company was American).
Sarah, Hillingdon

I'm a "Genetic Haemato-Onchology Research Technician". Could quite easily be shortened to "Lab Monkey".
Claire, London

I once had the pleasure of meeting Kevin Mellett, Nasa's man in charge of refitting space shuttles between flights. Pompous job title? Not a bit of it. On his business card he simply describes himself as "Rocket Scientist".
Ewen McLaughlin, Swansea



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