Title Inflation

My first brush with title inflation was through a mixture of frustration and serendipity

It was our year of graduation from business school and the placement scene was bleak. Contributing to the bleakness were factors economic and also that we dared to think beyond the IIMs (no we did not actually end up in the Institute that currently is suing everyone and their dogs, but to a lesser known Institution). The act of defiance emerging not from masochism that some protagonists aggressively preach on television these days, but obvious lack of good CAT scores. What we lacked in pedigree we attempted to make up through cunning, resulting in regular Wednesday raids to the Library to pick up a copy of the Economic Times – or more specifically their jobs supplement “Creme de la creme”. We would comb through the advertisements and create the crudest form of database on a pirated version of Lotus 1-2-3. The intent was to apply for positions advertised in the paper and either land a job (bird in hand v in bush argument) or gain experience of handling real-life job interviews before campus recruitment commenced. This astute act of foresight was stalled by an abject dearth of jobs that sought out graduating MBAs. One razor sharp brain however pointed out that our educational and soft-skills were exactly matching with what advertisers were seeking for Managing Directors or CEOs . After a bit of debate – and some spilled coffee and tempers – we concluded that our only hope was if some company were willing to accept us with a title of “CEO (Trainee)”

A decade and a half later I know a name for this phenomena. Title Inflation.

The great thing about this phrase is that it can easily be defined by swapping out a few words from the classical definition of (financial) inflation. “Too many people chasing too few titles”. Let’s break this phrase and tackle the parts independently. “Too many people”. Yes, ambitious people were fewer in number earlier. My father got a job in a steel plant apparently when the plant manager was impressed with my dad’s soccer skills and he worked in the same plant till the date he retired with a Casio digital watch (called “electronic watch” those days), a Parker pen and a plaque. But kids these days? They have peer pressure from firms that dole out titles like Assistant Vice President when hiring freshers from colleges and not to forget the eternal pressure from wives for elevated titles to tout at the next kitty party. New titles are flaunted in social networks like LinkedIn where the rest of your three hundred and seventeen connections get to immediately know (and are nudged by the network to congratulate you, however reluctantly) of your latest conquest. That’s another three hundred and seventeen people who will walk up to their bosses asking for a promotion in the next few weeks. Take a conversion rate of 25%, assume they get onto the LinkedIn showoff mode and each has an average of two hundred connections – you get the drift, now do the math. Whatever number you got – and you had to represent it with an exponential, right? – is a giant number and that is precisely what the demand side of the equation looks like. Why do you think these hair replacement guys are doing such booming businesses these days?

Let us cast a glance at the “too few titles” side of things. Starkly different – almost antipodal to the first problem. Organizations were designed to look like pyramids and one way to make that happen was through a control on the titles and the number of people who could get those titles (okay, full disclosure – I have worked for a firm that had two CEOs but that was an aberration). Thus in the traditional scheme of things one joined a firm as a trainee, worked up to ranks of Assistant Manager, Manager and then to finally a Managing Director, with levels squeezing up at each subsequent climb. This design horribly fails the demands of the modern day careerist, who essentially is demanding a promotion every two years (assuming a 28 year worklife, that is fourteen titles if one – hypothetically – stays in the same organization). Organizations also evolve in the same Darwinian way as other forms of life, so over a period of time they have created methods to stave off this promote-me assault and yet flourish in the labor markets. They have invented titles where none exist. And subterfuge with genetic mutation of existing titles.

Coming back to my Dad’s era, I remember how reverentially we were asked to  treat the General Manager of the plant. The DGM – Deputy General Manager – commanded lesser respect. It is not uncommon these days to bump into Assistant DGMs (yes, their titles are not acronym-ized. ADGM would sound kinda funny, no?). This is where organization creativity met organizational structure met promotion thirsty employees (a Holy Trinity of sorts, yes). I remember once receiving a mail from my boss, marked to all my peers, expressing the need for a level between Team Lead and Project Lead. I was on my way to the airport that day and there were at least a dozen possible levels – sorry, names of levels – sent in by the time I had checked in. Creation of a new title is ratified by social acceptance. The pace of such acceptance has also accelerated these days fuelled by attrition. A disgruntled employee after receiving a word-play-title might decide to seek a job at competition, which then quickly discovers the new title and passes it on in their organization, thereby providing the social seal of acceptance and opening up room for even wider propagation.

On the other hand, mutation – or expansion of existing titles – is typically achieved by use of phrases like “Senior” (Senior Manager), “Deputy” (Deputy General Manager), “Chief” (Chief Architect. “Chief” is my personal favorite and prime recommendation for individual contributor roles. Like your firm has just one “UI Designer” and he’s clamouring for a promotion. Go right ahead and make him “Chief UI Designer”. Nothing changes) and “Junior” (Junior Foreman). This list is – like they say – illustrative and not exhaustive. For an organization that operates in multiple geographies, the possibility of word-play-titles is incredibly magnified because they have at their disposal ways of slicing and dicing geographies in addition to the conventional tools mentioned above. Much rather than be surprised when encountered with a “Global Chief Project Leader” you should spend time counting the words that represent the most likely number of times the person has approached his boss with a successful bump-me-up demand.

A lot of my skeptic friends say this won’t continue for long. Bullshit, I say and point them to this phrase called new-normal. I also hope for the sake for some humor we do not see a mean reversion to vanilla titles like “Partner”, “Manager” and so on. Yawn, how boring and 2008 these titles are
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That’s about my experience – what’s yours? What exotic titles have you come across? Write, no?

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4 thoughts on “Title Inflation

  1. Excellent post as always Subrata 🙂

    Two incidents come to mind around titles.
    1. On business travel the immigration officer at JFK asked me where I work and what I do. I said what my title[1] was and he asked me to repeat it, twice. Then I distilled it to ‘I take care of some products’, after which he let me go with a glance that questioned my entire worklife!

    2. An ex-team member who came in with amazing credentials and did well in the interview for a very senior technical role. Barely survived in the couple of months with us and left for a blue-chip investment banking firm that gave a super cool title. [Leaving out details for privacy reasons.]

    What I have learnt is this. Title should be a natural outcome and a reflection of capabilities/accomplishments. Anything else, especially as a way to confirm an individual’s self-worth is not worth it. And going by what is happening in Indian markets, we have a really big problem.

    [1] I shall not repeat the title and invite public ridicule.

    • Thanks Mahesh, for your kind words. A title often describes an identity of the profession we are in (to meander towards a bit of seriousness). And I wonder what kind of identity these inflated titles provide to people. Returning to jest – and some philosophy – I cannot help but reproduce these lines below

      Some years ago when I was returning to England from a short trip abroad (I was then Master of Trinity College in Cambridge), the immigration officer at Heathrow, who scrutinized my Indian passport rather thoroughly, posed a philosophical question of some intricacy. Looking at mt home address in the immigration form (Master’s Lodge, trinity College, Cambridge), he asked me whether the Master, whose hospitality I evidently enjoyed, was a close friend of mine. This gave me a pause since it was not altogether clear to me whether I could claim to be a friend of myself. On some reflection I came to the conclusion that the answer must be yes, since I so often treat myself in a fairly friendly way, and furthermore, when I say silly things, I can immediately see that with friends like me, I do not need any enemies. Since all this took some time to work out, the immigration officer wanted to know why exactly did I hesitate, and in particular whether there was some irregularity in my being in Britain.

      This is Amartya Sen in the prologue of his book “Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny”.

      And yes, this Russian Roulette of titles has got to stop. I guess like all stuff heady this too shall contribute a generous migraine when things take that turn.

  2. Thoroughly enjoyable post!!! On one of my Linked In expeditions, I noticed couple of my ex fellow developers had turned out to be VP in a span of 2 years in a quite reputed company. I have to admit it gave me a quite a relief(more peace & happiness if I had been made a VP :)) that on further investigation that they were still developers and all’s well with the world. All the Linked In trips leave you with such depressed egos. I very much want my title to be Developer and put it down the same anywhere inside the company forms but unfortunately have to resort to my original title when on my CV. 🙂

    • Bala – Glad you liked the post. The similarity between title and financial inflation is in both phenomenon the expansion of the means to an end does not quite help in getting to the end any better. An elevated title speaks very little of our work and I suspect people figure that out soon. Incidentally, I discovered after writing this about some companies that allow people to have two titles – one internal and one external. This totally opens up the vistas for a inflation versus exchange rate analogy! Need to keep in mind if I write a follow up.

      Thanks – Subrata

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