The current high rate of consumer inflation may be an issue on most people’s minds right now, but another form of inflation — title inflation — is also making itself felt in the workplace, Shawn Cole, president and co-founder of national executive search firm Cowen Partners, told HR Dive.
Cole started observing the trend around 2018 with bootstrapped startups, he said. “They weren’t necessarily able to compensate competitively, but they were handing out inflated titles. So that could be an exaggerated VP or even a C-suite title.” Cole even saw one startup use “director of first impressions” as the title for an office receptionist role. “[Startups] really kicked it all off for the rest of us,” he said.
The trend became mainstream by 2020, Cole said, with mid-market and larger employers beginning to offer inflated titles as the war for talent ramped up. “Titles are having to be invented to accommodate those promotional opportunities, and that's [become] like a retention strategy,” he said.
Part of the expectation is also generational, with younger employees seeing impressive titles among their peers and agitating more quickly for advancement. “Baby boomers would wait 10 years for promotion,” Cole said, while “the millennial wants one next year.”
Title inflation can be bad for both the candidate and potential recruiters. Without the proper responsibilities to “earn” their title, the candidate may find themselves in over their head when attempting to leverage their role into a future position elsewhere, Cole said. They also may find they need to settle for a lower-sounding title more commensurate with their experience, forcing them to have to explain the discrepancy in titles when they eventually move on in their career.
On the other side of the equation, recruiters who don’t do their due diligence must contend with a “buyer beware” scenario when a promising-looking candidate cannot actually fulfill the obligations expected of them. To make the right hiring decision, they also may need to dedicate more time to sifting through candidates to ensure those put forward are able to meet a role’s demands.
Title inflation can even be bad for the company that engages in it, Cole said, due to a potential loss of morale among existing employees, who may be thinking, “‘Who is this person? How much are they paid? I’ve been here for five years.’”
It’s nearly impossible to roll back a title on someone without them quitting.
President and co-founder, Cowen Partners Executive Search
For HR professionals wary of hiring the wrong person, Cole suggested having a job description in hand and becoming familiar with the role responsibilities. Focusing on and comparing duties rather than titles can help identify which candidates are prepared.
But recruiters also can develop some shortcuts. For example, when evaluating candidates with “director” titles, which Cole said are often inflated, recruiters can ask, “Were you an individual contributor or a manager of teams?” Most often, properly assessed director roles require some level of management, Cole said. Recruiters can then begin to look at the management level, how many people the candidate managed and other, more meticulous factors.
For recruiters who have the delicate task of pitching a lower title to a candidate who thinks they may deserve a higher one, Cole emphasized the importance of contextualizing that decision. Explain the difference between the current and offered roles, including responsibilities, company sizes and other relevant factors, he said.
Companies are far better off not engaging in title inflation than attempting to fix it after it happens. “It’s nearly impossible to roll back a title on someone without them quitting,” Cole said. To prevent that, HR pros can talk to their hiring managers and “ask them clarifying questions about the titles they are choosing within their team organizational chart,” he said. “The HR professional can say, ‘Hey, tell me where this fits in and how it aligns to the greater structure of your team and … your future growth goals.’”
Finally, HR pros should devote significant energy to finding candidates who believe in and align themselves with the company’s goals and values, Cole said. “If you have a candidate that is only interested in joining your company for title and money, there will be another opportunity that comes to them, you know, a year from now with more money and a cooler title, and you're just gonna lose that person,” he continued. “So you want them bought in on a shared value system — not the money and title.”