Title Inflation Can Be a Tricky Thing

“You should keep your ambition in check.”

That’s some misplaced, yet free advice I got from a co-worker as I was on my way out of a job earlier in my career. A little ambition goes a long way. But, a little ambition also doesn’t hurt. It can be the very catalyst that gets you out of a rut or stimulates you to make that next choice in life. In higher doses though, it can be harmful.

Why? Too much ambition can feed the Peter principle. It’s the old adage that there’s a tendency for people to rise to their level of incompetence. Thankfully, I haven’t personally fallen victim to it, but I have seen it happen. My sense of self-awareness is always tuned into the risk of it one day applying to me.

So, what is “title inflation?” It’s the tendency for someone with a certain skill set or job description to have a loftier title than what’s considered nominal for that job description. Sometimes title inflation occurs at hiring time as a recruiting device. Other times, it’s a device that startups use to compensate employees where other types of compensation is lacking.

Nick Leiber, in his 2013 article Why Startups Won’t Stop Rampant Job-Title Inflation, describes the justification startups commonly use to anoint employees with lofty titles such as “Director” or “Vice President.” He notes that in some industries, such as banking, if you don’t have a “Vice President” title or higher, you may not be taken seriously or be seen as qualified enough to attend meetings with other higher-ups.

From experience, I know there is an arbitrary component about job titles, particularly at startup companies. A company’s totem pole is as much an idiosyncratic part of its culture as its dress code. Even within a single company, I’ve seen employees with below-average qualifications rocket up the food chain in certain departments (ostensibly as a motivational device) while employees in other departments, with above-average qualifications, appear to stagnate in their roles.

My personal belief is that people get paid more not because of a loftier title, but because the person paying you believes you have a relatively scarce skill set. However, if you let too much ambition guide your next move, you may have style without substance and you’ll find yourself seeking out a loftier job title for the wrong reasons. Instead, when looking for a new job — or evaluating your current role — it’s a good idea to ignore the job title and instead focus on the job description. If you have done, or can convince yourself or someone you can do 80 or more percent of the duties listed in the job description, you’ll be well down the path of being considered as well-qualified, regardless of the job title.

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