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Are job titles still important in the workplace? Are job roles a preferred alternative?
In the modern-day workplace, many people question whether job titles are still necessary. On one hand, they offer stability and structure. On the other hand, some people consider them old-fashioned and too reliant on a hierarchical system.
To determine if you should consider keeping or eliminating job titles in your company, keep reading.
The Pros and Cons of Job Titles
Some people like the structure that comes with job titles. It makes it easier to know who is doing what within the company, and how much room you have to grow career-wise. However, there are downsides to titles that can make the workplace less than enjoyable to be a part of.
Let’s dive into the arguments on both sides by looking at the pros and cons of titles.
Cons of Job Titles
Job titles are considered traditional when it comes to workplace culture, which is why so many people want to get rid of them. Titles create a hierarchical system that relies on bosses telling other people what to do, which can boost the ego of higher-ups.
In Ego Is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday defines ego as an unhealthy belief in one’s own importance. Having a job title that simply states that someone is considered a “senior” compared to other people who are “intermediate” is just supporting this unhealthy belief.
Relinquishing control doesn’t mean letting other people run your business or make your choices for you. Rather, it means properly delegating and focusing your efforts on big-picture issues.
However, your ego wants you to be the boss of everything. It feels good to make decisions, and you feel important when everyone relies on you to put out fires. Unfortunately, while the little things are fun to deal with, they’ll distract you from the big things, which are the important things that will determine your continued success (or lack thereof), such as a healthy environment to work in for your team.
Further, if you can’t let go of the reins in your business, you’ll have a hard time steering it through trouble. If you obsessively micromanage small details, you’ll be unable to spot big-picture issues that arise.
Additionally, if you can’t delegate responsibilities because you take pride in your job title, your employees are likely to resent your overbearing management style and are less likely to work as hard or be as effective as they could be if you allowed them to share responsibility. This creates a toxic workplace environment that will only get worse if the people at the top are taking all the credit, and the people at the bottom have no chance to improve or be promoted.
Doing More Than What You’re Paid For
Job titles come with a lot of expectations. You might overwork yourself trying to fulfill the responsibilities you signed on for, and realize that you deserve more. So what do you do in this situation? Maybe you’ll consider negotiating for a better title and pay raise, but that in itself is a lot of preparation and research.
Harvard Business Review gives insight on how to ask for the title you’re worth, which includes extensive research into a new salary, job description, and benefits. When you talk to your boss, you have to make sure that you come prepared with evidence of why you should be promoted to a new title. However, the article states there’s a chance you’ll get promoted with no benefits, and you still must be appreciative because it’s an “ongoing negotiation.”
You might be asking yourself why you’re going through all this trouble in the first place. Why couldn’t your manager see that you were doing work beyond your job title? What is the point of having a new title if there are no new benefits? It’s at this point in the soul-searching process that titles are just a name, especially if your responsibilities more accurately describe what your job is.
Pros of Job Titles
There are some scenarios where job titles are beneficial. For one, job titles matter in the job-hunting process. Say someone is a Social Media Coordinator doing the work of a Marketing Specialist, but never changes their title. When filling out their resume, they put down all of their responsibilities and begin applying for Marketing Specialist positions but never get hired. Why? Because recruiters are more likely to look at your current and former titles first if they don’t have time to thoroughly look through every resume.
Another reason titles might help you during recruitment is that some of the alternatives for titles aren’t exactly professional. Forbes points this out by saying that an interesting title such as “sales rockstar” is certainly refreshing and cool, but seems immature. You might give the impression that you’re not taking the job hunting process seriously, or that you think too highly of yourself if you’re willing to put “rockstar” in your title.
With a title that emphasizes personality and responsibilities, recruiters are less likely to take you seriously. After all, most companies are looking for professionals to join their teams. A formal title such as “Sales Consultant” is more credible, gives accurate information about your previous jobs, and details your experience level. However, we’ll see below one case where titles that focus on roles actually helped a company.
The Benefits of Job Roles
We previously discussed how job titles have the potential to create a toxic workplace culture through a hierarchical structure. This competitive nature divides employees and puts the company at risk since people are more focused on promotions and standing out. So what do job roles bring to the table?
By replacing titles with roles, you’re on the path to creating a healthier workplace—everyone feels equally important and can build better relationships with their coworkers. A good workplace also encourages innovation and new ideas from its employees, creating a supportive environment. Ben Horowitz’s book The Hard Thing About Hard Things goes into more detail about taking care of your employees to build a better work culture, starting with their roles.
You can best take care of your people by making your company a good place to work. In Horowitz’s terms, in a good place to work is one where:
- People are clear on what their jobs are and how success is measured.
- People believe their work makes a difference to the success of the company and, by extension, to their personal success. Eliminating titles can enforce this since everyone is at an equal level within the company.
- They have as few barriers to getting work done as possible. A good work environment avoids office politics, infighting, and overly bureaucratic processes, which all get in the way of doing good work.
A poor place to work inverts all of these. People aren’t clear what their jobs are; they don’t know if their work means anything; their work gets stymied by dumb obstacles; and people despise whom they work with. By embracing job roles (which emphasize abilities), you’ll be able to solve these problems if you already have them.
Some might argue that a good workplace alone isn’t enough to build a successful company—there are plenty of workplaces with great cultures that failed because they failed to achieve product/market fit. Conversely, a good workplace isn’t necessary—there are companies with horrid cultures that still became massively successful.
Roles are also incredibly beneficial to start-up companies. Start-ups can be difficult to maintain and develop. You’re essentially starting from scratch, so you likely don’t have a big team to help you. When you start to build that team, you need to earn their trust and assure them that they are important. Giving them job roles as opposed to titles will help you do that. Everyone can share responsibilities based on their skill sets, and since you most likely won’t have a big team, it’s easy to keep track of who is doing what. Down the line when your business becomes a massive success and your team exponentially grows, giving people titles might be necessary to keep things in order. But while things are still in the development stage, let people contribute wherever they can based on the skills they have, and don’t limit them just by their title alone.
Successful Job Role Implementation Stories
If you’re still wondering if job roles are better than job titles, let’s look at some stories of companies that benefited from eliminating job titles in favor of roles. These two stories come from small companies whose success has skyrocketed because of their leaders’ careful consideration of their team’s roles.
Blinkist is a book-summary subscription service, but its head of content, Ben Hughes, has provided insight into the company’s structure. In an article protesting against the implementation of job titles, Hughes highlights the positive effects of assigning job roles at Blinkist. When the company wanted to expand its content into an audio format, it initially thought they’d have to hire a separate team for it. Turns out, they didn’t.
The leaders at Blinkist learned that some of their employees already had the skill set to produce audio content. The problem was that these skills and responsibilities didn’t fit into their employees’ job descriptions. They decided to switch to job “roles” where people were defined by their abilities, not their titles. It allowed employees to take on more creative responsibilities, expand their skill set, and increase productivity. In addition, Blinkist’s audio feature became the #1 requested feature launched in record time.
With 800 employees, some might think a company would need job titles for structure and accountability. However, the payroll software company Gusto has this many employees, has no job titles, and is one of the most successful Silicon Valley start-ups. In retrospect, the lack of job titles lines up with the Silicon Valley work culture that values creativity, teamwork, and conventional workplace hierarchies are frowned upon.
Gusto employees, including its CEO and co-founder Josh Reeves, don’t have titles. Even Reeves’ “title” on LinkedIn is more of an action than an adjective: “Building Gusto for the Long Term at Gusto.” We previously discussed how roles are an exceptional replacement for titles, but Gusto goes one step further. Gusto doesn’t even focus on roles—it instead focuses on whatever team you’re on (communications, marketing, etc.) and tracks an employee’s progress by what level they’re on. If you develop more skills, you move up a level.
Reeves has long-term plans for Gusto, and to achieve those goals, everyone needs to work toward the company’s mission. When titles dictate who does what at the company, people are more inclined to work towards a promotion rather than building the company.
The Challenges of Implementing Job Roles: Zappos’s Case
While Blinkist and Gusto have had success with job roles, some other companies have struggled with implementing the progressive idea. Zappos has always been known for its philosophy that pushes boundaries and emphasizes teamwork. The former CEO of the company Tony Hsieh wanted to create an environment where people felt included and their opinions were valued, so he implemented job roles instead of titles.
Hsieh took an extreme approach to eliminate titles by forming the Zappos workplace as a holacracy in 2015, according to The Atlantic. Doing so meant that there would be no more bosses and a hierarchical system. On the surface, it seems revolutionary and refreshing—but what Zappos found was just a confusing mess.
The Atlantic reported that 18 percent of the company—some 260 people—took buyouts and left the company after the radical turnover of management. People were confused about who to report to for decisions since everyone was essentially in charge of themselves and payroll didn’t know how to figure everyone’s salary because titles were banished. Hsieh even gave new employees an option to either hop on the holacracy train or take three months of pay and quit.
Zappos seemed to have gone through a rough transition after banishing titles. In recent years, it’s been reported that Zappos has “quietly backed away from holacracy,” bringing back managers to keep things intact. It just goes to show that while eliminating job titles and a traditional workplace sounds ideal, it might not work for every company—especially a company as big as Zappos.
Are Job Titles or Roles Right For Your Company?
Now you’ve read the pros and cons of job titles, plus real-life stories of companies that have both benefited and suffered from using roles instead of titles. Not only that, but you should have an understanding of how titles can affect your career when looking for new job opportunities.
There’s no right or wrong answer to whether you should use job titles. Everyone’s career and/or business is on a different path with unique obstacles they must overcome. It’s important to evaluate your experiences and goals to determine if job titles accurately reflect who you are in the workspace.
If you have your own thoughts on the job titles vs. roles debate, leave them in the comments below!
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