Rules of thumb for job titling

What signals do organizational titling conventions convey? I have worked in organizations where it is required to put one's job title on a business card or in a signature block, and standard to include one's academic or professional qualifications after one's name, and the norm to put one's department.

Equally I have worked in organizations where it is prohibited to do any of these – people just have their first and last names and the company name. I've also worked in organizations where there are no guidelines and people just do what they prefer in terms of title, qualification, and department mention.

Face to face there are similar conventions, or lack of them. Is it ok to call someone by their first name, or does one have to say Mr. Brown? What if they have a doctorate – are they then called Dr. Brown? But how would you know if the abbreviation 'PhD' was not on the business card.

The organization I'm currently in has no preferred conventions and people choose. This leaves me wondering what image is right – shall I put PhD in my signature block, and on my business card, or will that make me look 'too academic'? Shall I put my job title on either? Does it make any difference to my performance and productivity if people do or do not know these things? Will it influence their attitude to me? Of course, the answer to all these questions is 'Yes'. But I don't know how, or how much.

But the answers to these questions matter. Not just at an individual level but also at an organizational level. Let's focus on job titles: Lucy Kellaway (Financial Times columnist) in answer to the question, from
someone searching for a job, "What title shall I put on my business card?" replied

In the bottom of my handbag are cards that say "Senior Vice President for Cross-Industry Workflow" and "Client Value Enhancement Executive" – neither of which leave me any the wiser.

There are two points to a business card. One is to remind people who you are. The other is tell people how to get in touch with you.

The most memorable thing for you to write on a card under your name is nothing – thereby suggesting that you consider your name to be important enough to stand alone.

This impression will be even stronger if you spend money on thick white card with a plain yet classy black typeface.

Cards, signature blocks, and titles are important. The way they are used and perceived reflect the culture of the organization and also shape it. In most organizations jobs are titled to reflect, level of responsibility, impact, "size", skills and capabilities and are paid in accordance to a scale. Organizationally job titles answer the questions etc.)

  • What is the relationship of this job to the rest of the organization?
  • How is this work/this job valued relative to other work/jobs?
  • Is this company egalitarian or status-conscious? Flat and nimble or hierarchical and bureaucratic?
  • Are titles based on expectations and accomplishments or 'politics' or 'dues-paying?'
  • Do titles … and the way we assign/manage them … support our business strategy and stated company values?

In most organizations job titling is an 'orphan' process. There's no one with the title of 'job titler' but titles have organizational implications because they:

• Drive reward eligibility decisions
• Facilitate decentralized organizational structure
• Promote internal equity across business units/geographies
• Facilitate movement of talent across business units/geographies

So some rules of thumb for job titling – thanks to my colleague David Van Der Voort for these.

  • Titles should state Level, Function, and Organizational placement of work performed
  • The Shorter the Better, 3 to 4 word titles are ideal e.g. Consultant – Applications Development not Project Manager, Agents' Office Automation Development
  • Title from the organization's bottom Up / not the top down
  • Base management titles on the scope and complexity of the organization managed
  • Differentiate leverage titles tied to the special roles versus functional titles that describe job (e.g. regional 'President')
  • Establish and maintain criteria for exceptions
  • Respect professional credentials (e.g. 'engineer')
  • Use criteria other than title for status and perquisite (perks) eligibility
  • Create and manage to a specific process for assigning titles. This is not necessarily a highly controlled, centralized process. Decentralized management of titling against criteria is a reasonable approach
  • Create a process for situations/roles that do not conform to 'normal' titling: special assignments, demotions, start-ups/spin-offs, unique individual roles
  • Clearly state the objectives of titling – what it is and is not supposed to do
  • Designate a process-owner. Delegating title-control to an empowered process owner simplifies the CEO's life. CEO involvement should be on a rare, management-by-exception basis.
  • Communicate specific criteria for titles. Occasional challenges and attempted manipulation of a clearly communicated approach are less disruptive than the need to continuously deal with ambiguous criteria
  • Periodically audit titling practices in relation to stated program objectives and criteria. Simplify and consolidate appropriately

Organizationally taking an equally thoughtful process to honorifics and qualifications would ensure clear cultural signals.