Middle Earth Workplaces: The Perils and Psychology of Over-Inflated Job Titles

Have you ever participated in a psychological survey or study in which you were asked to list your top 5 or 10 self-descriptors?  Psychologists love to gather these lists code them in a million and one binary ways, including whether you are individualist or collectivist, action-oriented or passive, introverted or extraverted, and then correlate them with random measures such as stigma consciousness and political orientation.  Oh, there are so many ways we can break a person down into random numerical representations and associations.  In such lists, do you include your job or career as a self-descriptor?

Have you ever looked at someone’s business card and wondered what their title meant? What is an ontologist?  Apparently, they decide what exists in the virtual world. What is a taxonomist? Here’s a clue, they could be a biologist or a librarian, and it in no way involves stuffing dead animals for mounting.

While I was at the Department of Justice, over a decade ago (stop trying to calculate my age), there was someone who was the Director of Supplies Distribution. Basically, she had the laborious and intellectually stimulating task of doling out pens from the supply closet. She would open the closet door for one hour each day and take pen requests.  I am completely serious about this.  While she handed out pens, she also tried to sell us her Avon products, clearly a much more fulfilling occupation. A bunch of us paralegals would rotate as to who would buy her products so that we could generate office-supply good will.  A decade later, I may still have some of those products in a bottom drawer somewhere and she may still be director of pens. I actually do not know since I long moved on to jobs where writing implements are not so highly regulated.  But this begs the question of what’s in a title anyway?

Job titles are supposed badges of honor, authority, power, and pride. Not getting the job title appropriate to your position can supposedly undermine your standing both inside your organization and with outsiders such as key stakeholders, clients and consumers. Additionally, not getting the title that you believe you are due can stymie a career trajectory.  Yeah, yeah, we get the human resources perspective – a perspective highly divorced from any reality of the working world.  But does it seem to you that something has gone awry with the allocation of job titles?  From Director of Pens to Director of Reporting to “Rug Hooker” (ok, I had to throw that really random title in). What about the ubiquitous title of Analyst – you’ve got your business analysts, product analysts, intelligence analysts, systems analysts, management analysts, information analysts, and a host of other “fill-in-the-blank” analysts? Who gets labeled an analyst, and for that matter are there non-analysts?  Is there someone out there whose specific job description says, “No analysis required”?  I’d like to think most jobs require some analytical thinking. Of course, looking at the news these days, there seems to be evidence that analytical thinking is not as abundant in the wild as one might hope.

Globally, we have seen changes in certain job titles that reflect either political correctness, attempts to boost self-esteem and collective rights, or attempts to legitimize certain fields.  For instance, we have seen the job title change from stewardess to flight attendant.  In essence, the term “stewardess” evolved into the gender-neutral “flight attendant.”  Interestingly, in 1912 the first flight attendant was a male by the name of Heinrich Kubis from Germany. Two decades later, the first female flight attendant (stewardess) was a 25-year-old registered nurse named Ellen Church hired by United Airlines in 1930.  Afterwards, female flight attendants rapidly replaced male ones, and by 1936, they had all but taken over the role; with that being one of the career paths seen as “legitimate” for women.  Nowadays, we are just as likely to see a male as a female flight attendant.  I assume the old rules about a stewardess being an unmarried woman, less than 118 pounds (somehow I doubt this had to do with the physics of lifting a lot of weight of the ground), and around 5 foot 4 inches tall, are no longer in effect, much to the dismay of some  frequent business travelers.

In a different field, in the late 1970s, the word “prostitute” morphed into the term “sex worker”.  The terms ‘sex work’ and ‘sex worker’ were adopted by sex workers themselves to redefine commercial sex, not as a social or psychological descriptor of a type or class of women, but as an income-generating activity or form of employment for both women and men. Now, every time I hear someone use the phrase prostitute, I physically flinch.  Although the use of the term “commercial sex worker” has permeated our social consciousness, the phrase prostitute is still much more readily used and accepted. In non-profit organizations concerned with social justice and health, commercial sex worker is the phrase du jour, but the linguistic influence of non-profits on the overall societal vernacular is limited.

Speaking of non-profits, in the non-profit world where you cannot bestow much in terms of financial compensation, managers oftentimes go overboard in the anointment of positions through grand, abstract titles. Yes, numerous titles resounding with grand import worthy of a royal court are bestowed as a way of mollifying the middle management masses, when financial compensation is hard to come by.  Of course, you also have this issue to some extent in the corporate world where you have countless senior Vice Presidents of this and that. While a Vice President in a non-profit is high up on the hierarchy, in the corporate world they are one of many, but are fairly well financially compensated.  The VP in the non-profit world can get power but not much in terms of financial compensation. See, the VP in a non-profit (and there is often only one, as opposed to the corporate stables of VP’s) is an executive officer ranking immediately below a president who oftentimes may serve in the president’s place under certain circumstances.  A senior VP in a for-profit corporation may not, and may be one of many VP’s vying for the attention of the higher-ups.

But let’s go back to the non-profit world and examine the title of program coordinator in two different non-profits. In one, this individual is essentially a program director, coordinating the program’s implementation according to a vision and mission.  In another, this individual is the person that handles logistics such as travel arrangements, calling participants and other essentially administrative tasks. Two very different functions, but nonetheless the same title.  Such individuals may even interact with each other across agencies for the coordination of client services and linkages, but their interaction can be impacted by their differing agency functions and thus they may not fully understand each other’s role or authority in the transaction.  The power individuals may seek through the use of their titles is somewhat weakened when there is no uniformity.

Let’s look at a different scenario. In a small non-profit of less than 50 people, you can at times have up to 20 “directors” along with 5 senior executives. Meaning, that 50% of an agency may be classified as middle or senior management.  In such a scenario, what does it even mean to be a director or middle management? Is this akin to being in Middle Earth in a constant struggle to control the world?  Imagine what these Middle Earth, Director Meetings look like with all the Midlings sitting at an oval table fighting over the distribution of toilet paper and pens.  They are all fighting over this distribution system because many of them, although called directors, direct no one other than themselves.  The most ambiguous is when you have a Director of Strategy.  I have seen rising use of this title across many agencies.  Every time I picture a Director of Strategy at a meeting I imagine a Bay of Pigs situation about to ensue: you know, a groupthink environment being led by the anointed visionary strategist–what could possibly go wrong?  You’re trying to figure out how to reach a population and provide services.  You end up invading Poland.

So, besides Middle Earth-style fights and strategic Bay of Pigs scenarios what are the other perils of over-inflated job titles? Yes, titles are valued by employees and are important for many internal and external reasons. So, they seem like a really perfect give-away come annual review time. If you can’t give a raise, give an inflated title away.  Hell, make up a title that is so abstract that no one can quite figure out what the person really does but it sounds cool.  That is bound to make an underpaid employee happy, right?  People want and value job titles and that supposedly costs the company nothing.  But there is indeed a price to pay.

How can an office even function when titles can lead to burgeoning egos and job inflation?  And it leads to a world inside the organization where people are fighting over seemingly ridiculous title issues and not so ridiculous title issues such as who is seemingly in charge of the team and who gets to fire unproductive staff.  In that vein, how do you even determine someone is unproductive when their title is completely abstract?  If your job title is “Odd Jobs”, who is to say you have not been productive?  Yes, supposedly there are job descriptions that you hold people to, but you have to wonder about those accompanying descriptions–Those too are oftentimes abstract to the point of meaningless.  Nobody does everything on their job description and many do far more.  Plus, you always have that ubiquitous catch-all phrase “other duties as assigned.” You could be hired as an executive assistant, and asked to design furniture under the rubric of “other duties”.  Furthermore, the first time you make an unworthy promotion through an abstract title assignment, all the people who were already at that other level feel devalued. In all, this over-inflation of titles will lead to the tyranny of over inflated Middle Earth egos!  And, we all know what happens then: we get obsessed with those ever-so “precious” titles.  Ah, So bright that title… so beautiful.. that title. ah, so Precious.

46 replies »

  1. Try this one on for size: glacial geomorphologist & glacial marine sedimentologist. That was me and basically all I did was push dirt around and went “Oooh, yeeeaah…” I was also your dubious analyst of every sort. I was, (get this 😉 ) A “Senior QC analyst III” for both a pharmaceutical company and an environmental company. Not at the same time, though it would have been fun bringing in dirty dirt into drug company … maybe more fun the other way around. 😛 Anyway, I think I get what you’re saying and completely agree. Getting over ourselves is probably the biggest battle we’ll ever have to fight in our short little life times. Why make it difficult by throwing up all these inflated job title barriers?

    Sure, sure a lot can be contributed to our upbringing in we were told numerous times that you don’t want to be just a cashier at a fast food joint, but that’s another blog/post for another time!

    Thank so much for posting this! 😀


  2. Very interesting take on the subject! May I make one suggestion? The bright yellow background and serifed font make for difficult reading.

    Senior Executive Vice President & Director of Strategic CRM Analytics


  3. I think job titles is all psychology. For example, I was called a Secretary for many many years. I was proud to be a Secretary. Now I am called an Administrative Assistant. I do the same thing. I think this is so sad!


  4. Haha I loved this post! Speaking as someone who yet has had a”title” in her young life, I sometimes feel bad that I’ve never had a real worthy job–but I also agree that plenty of it is baloney. As for the whole prostitute/sex worker thing, I don’t get it. Both do the SAME JOB. Both jobs are BAD. And unless you were sold into the sex slave business or kidnapped, then you MADE that choice and therefore are-I’m sorry to say-kind of a morally questionable person (especially if you live in the USA). Being politically correct can get so tiring, even for a diplomatic-loving person like me!


  5. Here’s the problem (and poor logic) with over-inflated titles.
    1. The more descriptive your title (i.e. it actually represents what you do) the easier it is for clients/ vendors/ others outside your company to understand what you do.
    BUT, that leads to
    2. They don’t want to deal with you, because they want to get higher up the food chain,
    3. You have to work on a different project, and it seems weird that the director of customer service is making a sales call to a large account
    HOWEVER, the biggest problem with overinflated titles,
    They solve a permanent problem temporarily. Imagine you have someone who basically runs your help desk, but because you are a small company and one day use the title “Director of IT” you either have someone that begins to act like it, and grows into the job, or assumes they already are it, and brings a level of inexperience and ineptitude to the job.
    Overinflated titles really annoy me. My rank order of preference is
    1. No Title (I know that’s unrealistic)
    2. Vague but amusing title (Chief Customer Helper is better than Call Center Associate)
    3. Vague but dry title, just implying area, (IT Helpdesk)
    4. Everyone’s a VP (Pick what you’re VP of)


  6. There is only one job title that I want “Zombie Building Infiltration Specialist”! Who the heck WANTS to be the Director of “Generic Middle Management Position” anyway? Not very exciting….It’s sad to contemplate what our workplaces have become and what we have settled for in the name of becoming a consumer culture….it’s a complete waste of human potential! Not to mention the casualty of unfulfilled dreams…no one grows up thinking “Someday, when I grow up, I want to be the Program Coordinator”…. Unless you’re talking about Saturday Night Live or something….Interesting topic and excellent post!


  7. I loved reading your observations and insight into the world of job titles. They’re a little like avatars in the sense that they’re meant to sum you up as a professional. But do they? I, too, long for the day I am in possession of a snappy-zappy job title can somehow evoke the assortment of tasks, roles and frenetic activity that makes up my day, because Administrative Assistant I am not, it’s too static and generic and says nothing of actual skills. Sigh!


  8. I love reading people’s business cards. The self-aggrandizement and self-importance is stunning sometimes. The crazy thing is that everyone seems to know it’s all b.s. so I have to wonder why we still engage in it. I think you’re right in saying that an inflated title can make an otherwise overworked and marginalized employee feel good and work harder. I think inflated job titles are just a symptom of our country’s preoccupation with jargon and seemingly “fancy” language.


  9. I’m a “farm hand”…. and that title is only on my resume. I’ve had other titles through work but currently I am “Holly” and my bosses are “Betty, and Joe”. On a farm no one gives a hoot about any titles (including the boss), you just have to be capable, trust worthy, somewhat intelligent (and obviously hard working). When we’re running our own farm in the future, hopefully the same approach to team effort is applied, I think it works. Everyone pitches in, no one is too high up to avoid shovelling cow turds n such.


  10. I’ve seen a lot of business cards where their job titles were obviously given by themselves. I don’t know if it was an attempt to be different (ok, yes it was), to boost their ego and make them sound more than what they were, or they thought they were being clever, but it turned out to be absolutely ridiculous. I’ve seen one card where the title was “Expert People Connector” (she was a PR Director) and another that said “Alchemical Word Smith and Dreamer” (she was a freelance writer). I can only shake my head and laugh.


  11. Some job titles are great – when I bought a Lensbaby, I got an e-mail from the Director of Customer Happiness before it even arrived. The amusement I got out of that actually added to the anticipation of receiving it! Regarding the job title Programme Coordinator, I have a colleague who for a while was giving himself a promotion from Programme Administrator to Programme Coordinator in his e-mail signature and on the telephone. For whatever reason, it represented a rise in status to him.


  12. My job title means something to me…It signifies the hard-work and sacrifice I endured to gain this “title” and earn my subsequent paycheck. It is fractional really, but it is my work, and I work to live, to pursue my passions. I suppose I am lucky to have found a niche that I can actually relate to, and apply toward relating to others in a real way, regardless of ego.


  13. I work in a library – the difference between Assistant Librarian and Librarian Assistant is several figures . . . yet it’s the same title reversed. Some people have titles representing work that hasn’t been done in that position for years. Very weird. The latest one I’ve heard is “domestic engineer” for homemaker.


  14. Excellent blog and painfully accurate. My work email signature (in which I am expected to put my job title amongst other bumpf that anyone receiving an email from me would most likely already know) annoys the more senior folks no end – it currently reads “Chief clock-watcher and Coffee-taster”.


  15. A company I worked for gave me a “promotion” with a slight raise and new title that sounded great but had nothing to do with what my responsibilities were before or after the change. It wasn’t a sign that my work was about to become more interesting, though, since I was told to disregard the new title. It stayed in place, though, and I still wonder where it came from.


  16. I have recently gained the position Associate Business Analyst position and it absolutely is no different from my Business Operation Specialist position. But when I ask my boss does this allow me to apply for a Business Analyst I position he said that I need to be a program manager first. WTH!


  17. I live in ‘the middle of Middle Earth’. Seriously. My city, Wellington NZ, has temporarily renamed itself with that rather silly moniker for the world premiere launch of ‘The Hobbit’ in a fortnight. The place is in a frenzy, there’s Hobbit stuff all around the centre city streets, wherever you look. I am a huge, huge Tolkien fan but for some reason I am thinking it’ll be good when we’re into December… Apropos inflated job titles – unquestionably a good deal of psychology behind this. Most of it, I suspect, to do with perceptions of status – both personal and in terms of how society perceives that status. And, I think, with disguising the fact that a lot of jobs today (including some labelled ‘manager’) are the modern analogue of peasant labour, one way or another. My own title, incidentally? I’m a writer. No qualifier, not a ‘type’ of writer. Just ‘writer’. I write books and, every so often, the kind folks variously at Random House and Penguin publish them. I refuse to be classified.


  18. This is true even in the academic world. Aside from your department chairs, there are a number of Assistant Chairperson of X, assigned tasks that the department chairs find too tedious or menial.


  19. I have a sort of related issue – I have a kind of patchwork career (it all relates to writing, but in all sorts of capacities) so whenever anyone asks me what I do for a living I always hesitate then mutter a rambling list of my various job titles, while the poor person who asked looks increasingly confused and a bit frightened!


  20. Ha, so funny. I was vice-president of a mortgage company once. Ha. Only because “vice-presidents” were the only people that could sign Notes (and I think checks, but I don’t remember) and the REAL vice-presidents were tired of always having to be around to sign them when we needed them signed so they made a slew of us in the funding department vice-presidents. So funny.


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