How Your Employees’ Job Titles May Be Costing You Business

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the best job title in the world
Google’s Jolly Good Fellow — best job title in the world, no?

So my daughter and I were in our local Toys “R” Us the other day and as we passed through the checkout, I happened to notice something strange about our cashier. To my daughter’s chagrin, I did pretty much what I always do in such situations:

Me: “Excuse me. I was looking at your name tag and I noticed you’re a ‘World Sales Leader.’”

World Sales Leader: “Uh…yes?”

Me: “That’s great! What’s the threshold for becoming a ‘World Sales Leader’ at Toys ‘R’ Us?”

WSL: “It’s just my job title.”

Me: “Right! But I mean, how hard was it to become recognized as a ‘World Sales Leader’?”

WSL [indifferent]: “It’s just the one that comes after ‘Sales Associate.’”

Me [now also indifferent]: “Oh.”

Me [brightening]: “What comes after World Sales Leader?”

WSL: “Assistant Manager. Thank you for shopping at Toys ‘R’ Us.”

There are several lessons to take from this conversation. (One: think twice before letting your dad come shopping with you.) What strikes me most is how absurd it is to saddle hundreds of junior employees — thousands? Toys “R” Us employs 66,000 people — with such impossible expectations. Let’s face it: as a title, “World Sales Leader” is:

  1. a mouthful;
  2. embarrassing in its hyperbole; and
  3. disempowering: given the limitations that must surround such a job, how could anyone live up to so grandiose a positioning statement? How could anyone manage to actually lead the world in sales while getting paid $13.33/hr (Canadian!) to run a cash register on a rainy Sunday night in the suburbs?

How could anyone live up to so grandiose a positioning statement?

You’re setting up every assistant assistant manager for embarrassment at best, failure at worst. Was that the plan?

My Name Is John and I’ll Be Your Server…

Job titles are part of the story that companies tell their customers, especially companies that relate to the world through well-recognized brands. In some ways they’re the cover by which the books that are employees get judged. By customers, co-workers, managers, executives, investors, suppliers, designers, manufacturers, the press, competitors…

Here at ECHO, we often have the opportunity to consult with companies on the storytelling they use to transmit values to new employees. Onboarding is such a powerful time to explain not just what your company does but how and, especially, why. (For our money, if you’re looking for excellence in onboarding, it’s hard to argue with the fantastic, intentional process described at Percolate.)

It’s also the formal time to tell employees where they fit in the hierarchy. But really purposeful storytelling should begin even before new workers are welcomed into the building. Even before they apply.

Still the Same Old Story?

Toys “R” Us shouldn’t be singled out. First of all, the company is already having its share of troubles — as kooky workplace experiments so often signal. Having weathered a billion-dollar loss in 2014, it brought in both a new CEO and its “TRU transformation,” which Forbes describes as: “to redefine Toys ‘R’ Us in the eyes of shoppers so that its stores are deemed easy to shop, sales associates are considered experts in the toy and juvenile categories, and prices are fair.”

If they’re going to promote sales associates as experts in toys and youth, then sure, they probably do need to add a little shine. As long as they remember to build a larger narrative around “World Sales Leader” to support that expertise. A title and a name tag do not a narrative make.

A title and a name tag do not a narrative make.

Instead? To my view, there are only so many choices:

  1. Opt out. Remove job titles altogether, as companies like Medium and Zappos have done by adopting the revolutionary Holacracy system “in which ‘managers’ are not designated individuals with titles but rather temporary functional roles that employees step in and out of over time.”
  2. Mostly opt out. Allow workers to name their own titles. If you like improv theatre, you’ll love this approach and probably chortle every time you’re in the staff room and in walks the Director of the Road Less Traveled.
  3. Opt in. Stick to traditional titles. This is fine when the title is “Assistant Manager” but more problematic when nobody knows what a title means in the first place — like the 97% of parents polled who can’t describe the responsibilities of an offspring who is a User Interface Designer.
  4. Opt for more. Get creative. Stir things up. Invent titles (especially if it reflects real vision, as the US Navy is doing by removing “man” from its titles). But please, if that’s your plan, craft an entire narrative arc, from cashier to CEO, that is coherent — the vibe needs to match your business’s “voice” and audience. That is consistent — if Dragon Slayers stock the warehouse, then Evil Sorcerers need to manage payroll (or the other way around?). And that is transparent and realistic enough to give employees, customers, shareholders, etc. a happy ending.

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