Title inflation

Too many chiefs

The Economist carries an interesting piece on the runaway inflation of job titles:

KIM JONG IL, the North Korean dictator, is not normally a trendsetter. But in one area he is clearly leading the pack: job-title inflation. Mr Kim has 1,200 official titles, including, roughly translated, guardian deity of the planet, ever-victorious general, lodestar of the 21st century, supreme commander at the forefront of the struggle against imperialism and the United States, eternal bosom of hot love and greatest man who ever lived.

When it comes to job titles, we live in an age of rampant inflation. Everybody you come across seems to be a chief or president of some variety. Title inflation is producing its own vocabulary: “uptitling” and “title-fluffing”. It is also producing technological aids. One website provides a simple formula: just take your job title, mix in a few grand words, such as “global”, “interface” and “customer”, and hey presto….Even so, chiefs are relatively rare compared with presidents and their various declensions (vice-, assistant-, etc). Almost everybody in banking from the receptionist upwards is a president of some sort. The number of members of LinkedIn, a professional network, with the title vice-president grew 426% faster than the membership of the site as a whole in 2005-09. The inflation rate for presidents was 312% and for chiefs a mere 275%.

America’s International Association of Administrative Professionals—formerly the National Secretaries Association—reports that it has more than 500 job-titles under its umbrella, ranging from front-office co-ordinator to electronic-document specialist. Paper boys are “media distribution officers”. Binmen are “recycling officers”. Lavatory cleaners are “sanitation consultants”. Sandwich-makers at Subway have the phrase “sandwich artist” emblazoned on their lapels. Even the normally linguistically pure French have got in on the act: cleaning ladies are becoming “techniciennes de surface” (surface technicians).

The same has happened in UK higher education over the years. Many universities now use the titles such as Assistant Professor and Associate Professor in place of Lecturer and Senior Lecturer. And in the administration whereas most titles used to be Administrative Assistant, Assistant Registrar, Senior Assistant Registrar or similar, these have now been replaced by a plethora of Officers and Executives and we seem to have more Directors than Hollywood. And many Registrars have now been retitled Chief Operating Officers. Where will it end?

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3 thoughts on “Title inflation

  1. Job Title inflation is annoying, every call centre employee being a customer relations executive, US corp’s having a hundred Vice-Presidents, who are no more than middle managers. But I don’t think the examples in HEI are that bad.

    My understanding is that most English speaking countries refer to lectures as Assistant Professor and Associate Professor, based on the US practice. This must lead to confusion when those outside the UK interact with UK lectures (and a risk that they perceive UK academics as a lower rank – not even associate professor).

    Having mainly worked in Libraries, the fact most (not all, eg Nott) heads of University Libraries are referred to as The Librarian has always irked me. It’s confusing and often needs explaining. But the trend to refer to those directly reporting to The Librarian as ‘sub-librarian’ as declined, a good thing in my view.
    Now they have job titles that reflect what they do (Head of User Services, Head of Resources, Head of Collections, etc), and not what they are not (‘sub’ to me creates a vision of where they have failed to reach).

    I draw the same conclusion for Assistant Registrars. The University I work out is slowing moving away from a hundred or so Assistant Registrars to proper job titles which explain what the are responsible for (head of undergraduate admissions).

    Officer is an interesting one, seems to be used for both middle level professional – but not management – posts, and also for very senior positions (CIO, COO, CEO). Again, I have no problem with the former. My first job title was Computer Officer, I did everything IT related for a dept, fixing PCs, running Servers, Developing webpages, it seemed an appropriate titles.

    I think the key is to keep titles as descriptive and honest as possible. And consistent, i.e. each Director should be at the same grade, and so too for each Head and each Manager, that way when you meat a Head of abc from the other side of campus you have some idea of their level of responsibility.

    • I would admit that small part of the disappointment about the disappearance of the Assistant Registrar/Senior Assistant Registrar title is down to a wee bit of nostalgia for a time when the title also gave you a sense of relative seniority even if it was light on detail. Besides the issue of title inflation though, some of the problems with very specific descriptive titles include (a) the idea that there is only one person who can do that job and (b) they can’t do any other work because it’s not their job to do so (unless you are going to change their job title. Both of these things greatly limit the flexibility of the organisation and the opportunities for the individual it seems to me.

  2. Would you recommend reverting the academic ranks back to Professor, Reader, Senior Lecturer and Lecturer?

    These have always made a lot more sense to me. The Associate and Assistant prefixes just seems like a way of devaluing the title Professor.

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