Why Job Titles Matter for Careers

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Job titles are badges of authority. Not getting the correct job title appropriate to your position, duties, authority, and achievements can undermine your standing both inside your company and with key outsiders such as clients. Additionally, not getting the job title that you are due can hinder your pursuit of future career opportunities, both inside your current firm and as a potential outside hire by other employers. You probably will be seen unfairly as someone who actually is at a lower level of achievement than the one you have attained.

Job Title Scenarios

In one scenario, an employee gets a de facto promotion but does not get an upgrade in job title to that of the former incumbent. This may signal either a downgrade in the importance of that job, or be utilized as a not so subtle device by a company to lower the level of compensation associated with that position.

Sometimes, people are hired into firms or enticed into changing jobs within firms based on promises about future upgrades in a job title. Unfortunately, where these agreements are purely verbal, as they often are, there is the risk that management may renege on them, even by claiming never to have made them. The danger is especially high when there is a change of supervisor for the employee in question, and the new manager denies being bound by his predecessor's promises.

Difficulties in getting an upgrade in job title may occur for worthy employees even if they do not lead automatically to higher compensation. Managers may be using the denial of upgrade strictly as a means to assert their authority.

Another job title scenario is one in which your management grants you an upgrade in job title, but your human resources (or HR) records do not reflect it. When this occurs, it is typically an error of omission, but in some Machiavellian firms, it can be intentional and a difficult situation to handle. A case study follows.

Case Study in Job Title Errors

An actual case study in human resources (or HR) errors involved someone hired with the explicit understanding that he would get an Assistant Vice President (or AVP) title immediately upon starting work with a new employer, a leading financial services firm. During the course of over 4 years in a position at corporate headquarters, that person got every indication that he indeed was an AVP. This included the title on his business cards, his eligibility for an office rather than a cubicle, the design of the nameplate on his office, the amount of vacation time to which he was entitled, and even the title as it appeared on various personalized human resources documents in his possession.

After those 4 years at headquarters, this person moved to a job in a different division of the firm, a separate legal entity with its own human resources department and payroll system. More than a full year after that, he was utterly surprised when his current boss congratulated him on being upgraded to an AVP title. When his human resources records were transferred with him to his new division, an indication of his previous possession of the AVP title inexplicably had failed to come across as well.

When the employee pointed out that he already was an AVP from day one with the firm, his current manager investigated and determined that, somehow, there were errors in how the personnel records were maintained, and in how they were transmitted internally. Luckily, the employee quickly was able to get an upgrade to full Vice President instead, which actually was long overdue by that point in his career, given both his total tenure with the firm and his performance to date, which had merited stellar reviews from all previous managers as well.