Strategy

Job titles: Title assurance

Job titles are getting creative — maybe a bit too creative.

What’s in a name? Nothing really, unless your company recently hired a chief activation officer or a chief of insight. Then the question has a new-found sense of legitimacy: as in what on earth does that mean? Corporate creativity is generally applauded, but this bit of whimsy at work can seriously backfire.

“Some people might find these titles to be novel, but people just want clarity,” says David Zweig, associate professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Employees need to know exactly whom to come to when they have a problem in a particular area. Someone with a customer service issue isn’t likely to take it up with the chief experience officer, a clumsy title once used by ego-driven CEOs, but now a glorified vice-president of consumer relations.

Likewise, a chief people officer (Wal-Mart, Molson Canada and resort hotel chainIntrawest are among those that use this moniker) is really just a softer, less meaningful way of referring to the head of human resources — a perfectly acceptable title on its own. While employees will eventually figure it out, most likely sooner rather than later, potential recruits could be left scratching their heads.

Managers must also carefully consider the titles they bestow on employees, says David Gore, an account manager and senior consultant with HR firm Watson Wyatt in Toronto. A title that runs counter to an employee’s actual responsibilities sets that person up for failure, he says. “The minute you give them the title, the organization assumes they have X level of responsibility.” And the damage is done the moment the employee doesn’t live up to that assumption. “There’s got to be great care to make sure the title truly reflects what the expectations for the individual are,” cautions Gore.

Whether you work in a traditional or a more entrepreneurial environment, the key to happy employees is to keep things clear at all times. Unless you really want your chief activation officer, (namely, head media buyer), fielding questions on how to start, uh, something, of course. Alex Mlynek