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What do job titles mean?

There was a time when job titles were simple. You were either "the boss" or "not the boss."

That has changed dramatically now that we have fancy things such as workers rights and business cards and egos.

Some companies are staffed by small armies of vice presidents. There are chief Twitter officers, brand strategy gurus and senior elbow-nibbling advisers. (I may have made that last one up.)

Heck, if I had my druthers, my title would be Illustrious Workplace Wisdom Dispenser King, instead of "not the boss."

Though impressive-sounding job titles can be nice to have, a loyal reader asks: "Which job titles actually mean something in the work world and which ones actually mean something valuable to future employers?"

It's a tough question. When done right, a nontraditional job title can describe a person's skills with greater specificity, making that person's role at a company clearer and enhancing his or her marketability.

Matt Casey, head of Matt Casey Career Coaching in Cambridge, Mass., explained that a title such as "marketing manager" is too vague in an age when clients want to know what you do and recruiters might be seeking a certain type of talent. A better description would be "product marketing manager in women's health and diagnostics."

"The nature of work has changed," Casey said. "Things are much more specific. Something like a 'social media expert' doesn't tell me anything."

Jeff Giles is vice president of business development at Internet marketing company First Impressions Interactive. Although that title sounds impressive, he actually owns the place.

"At the end of the day, what I'm really doing is business development, and that's what makes sense for a title," Giles said. "For me, it's better than throwing something like 'founder' out there."

That's a pragmatic — and I think, smart — approach to titling. However, companies often dole out impressive-sounding titles just to boost workers' egos or in lieu of pay raises.

Some companies are also adding a little humor or edginess to titles, a reasonable idea but one that may not help the employee in the long run.

Giles said he recently received an email from a "chief rainmaking officer."

"I thought, 'Okay, I'm going to take that as though this is the guy who brings in the dollars,' " Giles said. "But let's say that company goes under and he leaves — I don't know what you do with that title."

Title inflation similarly can cause problems for the worker and the employer.

If the worker is seeking another job, an inflated title might land him an interview for a job for which he is wildly underqualified. And networking sites including LinkedIn make it easy for potential employers to figure out a person's place in a company, regardless of title. No recruiter's going to be impressed by someone carrying a title that overstates his or her abilities.

For the employer, inflating employee job titles can lead to legal problems.

Irving Geslewitz, a labor and employment attorney with the Chicago-based firm Much Shelist, said confusion arises when employees' titles don't match job duties.

"What happens is, you might give people an inflated title and pay them a salary and just assume it doesn't matter how many hours they work and that they're exempt (from wage and hour laws)," Geslewitz said. "You give someone a title like chief Twitter officer and think that makes him an executive or managerial-level employee. But the test for whether someone is exempt from being paid overtime has nothing to do with the title. It depends on the duties the person has."

He said companies can be audited by the state or federal labor department and can get in trouble if they have people working under titles that don't line up with their duties — particularly if the trumped-up titles are being used to skirt state and federal wage and hour laws.

"If you're an enterprising plaintiff lawyer, you can get a class-action case going and say, 'You're classifying this group of employees who all have similar characteristics as exempt when they're really not exempt,' " Geslewitz said. "Then the company owes the overtime. It's sort of like a cottage industry, because it can be so lucrative and it's so easy for a company to fall into doing something like that."

Given how routine grandiose titles have become, Geslewitz said it is wise for any organization to review how its employees are being paid: "If you're treating them like salary-exempt employees and not paying them overtime, maybe it's worth having an outside counsel take a look and evaluate these jobs to make sure they're not misclassified."

I, for one, am accurately classified as "not the boss," both at work and at home. But that doesn't mean a man can't dream.

Someday they'll dub me Illustrious Workplace Wisdom Dispenser King.

And it will mean nothing to anyone, but everything to me.

What do job titles mean? 04/21/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 21, 2012 5:30am]

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