We are all superheroes now

05 December 2017

Superhero

Would you be more likely to apply for a job if you were going to be called a “Stormtrooper” rather than a software engineer? Maybe we all feel a glow from knowing our lunch is being made by a “Sandwich Artist”? Professor Sir Cary Cooper wonders what wacky job titles really mean for employers and all their “Ninjas”.

Employers keep on breaking the mould when to comes to job titles. And why not? If it’s a reflection of the changing world of work, freewheeling new opportunities and adventures, it’s got to be a good thing. At least when there’s some kind of truth involved.

It all started with the dot.com boomers, when the ICT sector was re-inventing itself as the sexy place to be. One way to attract young talent, along with the ping pong tables and funky bean bags, was to give people fresh-sounding titles that would set them apart from standard ICT workers. So Google has employed a “Captain of Moonshots” since around 2010 (instead of a Head of Research & Development). Apple, Facebook and Google are now the biggest employers of “Ninjas”, “Gurus”, “Rockstars” and “Superheroes”.

Other sectors have copied the trend, as a way of trying to share in the “exciting employer” image and its sense of energy. For example, at the Make-A-Wish Foundation, a charity which arranges dream-come-true experiences for kids with life-threatening illnesses. The CEO is known as the “Fairy Godmother of Wishes” and PR Managers are “Magic Messengers”. And this works well because of the context, and what’s involved in the actual day-to-day job.

Re-labelling jobs can have a positive effect on people’s sense of worth and identity. A study by the Academy of Management Journal has found that these kinds of “self-reflective” job titles actually contribute to a lowering of stress among holders. In the case of the creation of “baristas” there’s been a sense of professionalisation, of staff being recognised for a specific set of skills that does distinguish them from the basic makers of coffee and tea.

Grappling the Time Ninjas

According to a study from US compensation consultancy Pearl and Meyer, about 8% of companies studied said they were not using job titles to “define an employee’s role”. If applied to businesses which employ staff in the UK, that would mean more than 100,000 are using job titles which for some reason fail to say what an applicant is supposed to be doing.

The sheer variety and pace of change in our technical capabilities means the days of self-explanatory job titles like “Marketing Manager” may be numbered. There are too many potential combinations of skills for generic titles to work across the board. But the unwieldy, often implausible titles created in their place are causing problems. The new job title approach is also being increasingly used, for example, in functions like HR, maybe in more muted forms, but with the same intention of making claims about personal freedoms and opportunities. The result is titles like “Director of People” or “Chief Happiness Officer”. The problem is that they suggest someone has a job that’s all about people, with the chance to introduce real changes and creative initiatives, when the reality is still all about dealing with personnel admin, pay and rations.

Businesses that take the Google approach don’t necessarily have the same kind of culture or ability to communicate that culture. And that leaves people feeling confused and a bit awkward.

Google gets this, and despite its taste for unusual titles their externally-facing jobs page is full of surprisingly normal-sounding titles like “software engineer” and “financial planning manager”. It’s only when people take on a job that they earn their “super hero”-style moniker. The problems start when a firm like an online pet supplies company is advertising for a “Time Ninja” instead of a human resources co-ordinator.

Recruitment website Indeed.com believes meaningless suffixes like “Rockstar” or “Guru” tacked on to relevant descriptive terms like “database” or “coding” – while ostensibly harmless to those in the know – are alienating. They also risk infantilising highly intelligent professionals in the same way that putting hammocks and slides in offices does. According to the research, based on search terms entered on their site, people search for roles that match their skills, not their values. So unless the job title communicates at least something about the specifics of the role, recruiters will end up putting off potential recruits.

Even established job titles cause confusion. Major employers like Sky, Ovo Energy and American Express are among the thousands to advertise for the position of “scrum master” – a software development role, similar in scope to a project manager. Yet a study of 1,000 British adults found that 75% of British adults thought “scrum master” was a fake job title, or didn’t know for sure if it was real. Some of the more widely advertised tech job titles were thought to be not only meaningless but also “implausible”. The majority of people taking part in the study couldn’t tell the difference between genuine tech industry job titles and the titles that had been made up for the research, some inspired by computer games.

For the future there are only likely to be more playful and non-standard job titles as employers look to talk up the roles being offered, compete for talent, want to reflect their social role or ethical credentials. The biggest danger here is one of disillusionment. Titles build expectations and if these aren’t met then there’s going to be a growing cynicism in the workforce towards roles and responsibilities in general. If there’s some new and individual magic about a post, that’s great. If not, tell it like it is.

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