What’s in a job title? (Part 2)

Assigning unusual job titles, unilaterally changing them

Brian Kreissl

 In last week’s post, I discussed some of my thoughts on my own job title, which is somewhat unusual for an HR practitioner. This week, I’m going to discuss job titles in general.

In many ways, this discussion is a culmination of several themes I’ve been exploring in this blog over the past couple of years. Applicant tracking systems, HR career management, people defining themselves based on their jobs, non-traditional HR jobs, whether recruiters and employers are too picky, candidates’ salary histories, and even the issue of employer branding are all relevant.

‘Cute’ and inflated job titles

Personally, I’m not much of a fan of “cute” job titles. An example might be calling a receptionist the “director of first impressions.”

While I understand the sentiment behind this — to try to engage someone in what’s frequently considered a fairlly mundane job while also impressing upon the incumbent just how important the job actually is to the organization — such an unusual title may cause the person some difficulty finding another job.

I also believe it’s important for people to be able to repeat their job title with a straight face, without having to explain it.

Of course, there’s also the argument against using inflated job titles — although in this case it’s probably fairly obvious a receptionist isn’t a “director.” Yet, in other cases it isn’t quite so obvious someone’s job title is inflated.

But if someone is a “director” earning a salary of $45,000, then is that person really a director? I’ve also came across organizations where it almost seemed like every second person was a vice-president (the banking industry in the United States springs to mind).

That’s why it’s important as a recruiter to probe for details behind people’s previous jobs and responsibilities. While I got some flak for my post arguing that candidates’ previous salary histories are relevant to employers, there are other ways of probing.

For example, how many people did the candidate manage? Whom did she report to? Did she manage a budget, and, if so, how large was it?

Of course, there are differences across industries and organizations — and an organization’s size and resources will also have an impact. That’s not to say stretch assignments won’t work out, but as a recruiter, it’s important to understand “what you’re getting” when interviewing candidates.

Job titles and applicant tracking systems

One problem with unusual or non-traditional job titles is applicant tracking systems (ATS) don’t always handle them very well because such systems are often set up to look for a specific job title in an applicant’s resumé.

Therefore, it can be challenging for people with unusual titles — or titles that don’t reflect the reality of their current roles — to find work elsewhere. People are then faced with the dilemma of either being honest and using their actual title or changing their title to something more relevant, which is generally considered to be somewhat dishonest.

While a devious employer could conceivably use this as a retention strategy because it would mean the employee would have a difficult time finding a job elsewhere, such a strategy isn’t recommended. Enlightened employers try to retain their employees by engaging them and enhancing, rather than thwarting, their career prospects and employability — either with that organization or elsewhere. It’s also important to remember people can be downsized in the future and therefore be forced to look elsewhere.

Job titles and constructive dismissal

Employers unilaterally change employees’ job titles all the time. From a legal perspective, do such changes amount to constructive dismissal?

While the answer to that question depends on a number of factors, a simple job title change often will not be sufficient to trigger constructive dismissal. However, if a job title change is accompanied by a change in the employee’s job description or the new job title represents a significant loss in prestige, the employer could be found to have unilaterally breached a fundamental term of the employment contract.

This can be the case even where there is no loss of remuneration for the employee in question, as the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruled recently in the case of Blight v. Nokia Products Ltd., 2012 CarswellOnt 4004 (Ont. S.C.J.). In that case, a manager had his direct reports taken away and his title changed (although the word “manager” still appeared in the title). The court found this amounted to constructive dismissal.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com.

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