In Defense of Titles

“Titles only exist for HR”, I saw someone say the other day. On the contrary, I would argue that nothing speaks louder than titles. Not recognition, not even compensation.

I rise to speak in defense of titles. Here’s why:

A job title communicates many things: relative experience, place in a hierarchy, organizational respect, and even compensation range. It says all those things not only to the holder but to everyone around them, inside the organization and out.

A clear title is very convenient shorthand that eliminates a lot of confusion.

At first meeting, you know how and what to communicate. Is this person someone who needs great detail or just the key points? Is this person someone who can made a decision and have it stick?

At hiring, common industry-recognized titles communicate everything from responsibility and job duties to reporting structure; from communication expectations to compensation. Hiring a VP is vastly different from hiring a Junior Engineer. You know that just from the title.

And of course, titles are valuable in personal evaluation. A good set of ladders with responsibilities, expectations, and titles helps employee and manager speak crisply about development. They set benchmarks and provide a roadmap for progress for both sides.

Titles also offer great opportunities for both personal and public recognition. Which is why titles are, sometimes, a better tool than compensation.

As a leader, I can give you a big raise or bonus for your incredible contribution to the latest win. You love it and feel appreciated, I enjoy giving you the respect it represents. We both bask in the glow. But only we know about it.

If I stood in front of your team and thanked you profusely, it may feel shallow. Only words. Yet if I used that same meeting to announce your promotion, everyone would know the magnitude of the recognition. All understand the milestone. And everyone knows you got a raise.

Yes, titles are misused. Offered up in lieu of compensation. Ugh. But all tools can be misused. Comp with a $10 “bonus”, a $0.10 raise. Or a five-figure bonus wasted on the billionaire. Recognition can be as well, with hollow word salad in place of genuine appreciation.

Just because a title can be misused doesn’t make it worthless. Take for example the organizations that have tried to have no, or meaningless, titles. Chief Bottle Washer. Head Honcho. While amusing, they communicate nothing except lack of respect for the recipient.

Many startups get confused and give everyone a “Chief” title. In a six person org. In doing so they dilute the value, and fool no-one. I’ve seen VCs get turned off just from this bit of shenanigans to decline the investment. Titles, you see, can communicate culture too.

A well-recognized title paired with the compensation to match gives pride to the owner in a way that dollars alone cannot. A car or watch may illustrate dubious financial choices, a VP title is something most people, inside and outside the organization clearly understand.

So, I rise in defense of titles. Good, clear, honest, and respectful titles. Titles tell everyone — the holder, the granter, and the observer — as much as you could ever expect from just a very few well-chosen words.