Our job titles say a lot about us. They are powerful symbols about who we are, what we can do, and what others can expect from us. In this sense, a job title is a brand that communicates expectations. So obviously job applicants pay a lot of attention to what a job is called when deciding where to apply and whether to accept.
But for many organizations, job branding is not very strategic. Job titles often send the wrong signals and fail to attract the best applicants. In fact, the traditional view on job branding is about standardization and benchmarking. As the thinking goes, most organizations need similar tasks completed, so generic titles are a form of shorthand, allowing firms to treat bundles of work as commodities that command similar rates of pay across companies. For example, the U.S. Department of Labor devoted more than a decade of resources to create the O*Net database, a comprehensive tool for job analysis that wouldn’t work without standardized jobs and job titles.
On the other hand, job branding can be strategic and help firms differentiate. “Imagineer” captures greater applicant attention than “Computer Hardware Engineer” when Disney is recruiting. “Imagineer” also generates self-selection, because it is more attractive to the right types of job applicants who have a personal interest in the intersection of engineering and storytelling, while discouraging applicants who seek normal engineering work. Finally, “Imagineer” reflects Disney’s unique company culture and encourages candid discussions of how engineering is different at Disney. The title inspires conversations between applicants and recruiters about the way that storytelling and technology can join up to create magic and make the impossible possible. A strategic job title helps you target your ideal applicants and convey the unique nature of the work you want them to do.
Adam Grant, Justin Berg, and I studied and worked with a number of organizations that have rebranded jobs, and entire functions, to strategically attract and retain the right type of people. For example, in 2006 when Laszlo Bock was recruited to Google from GE to be “Vice President of People Operations and Analytics,” he was surprised that the job title didn’t have Human Resources in it. He was intrigued, but also “worried that an oddball title like People Operations would make it that much harder to find another job” if his stint with the much smaller Google did not work out. This led him to talk with then-SVP of Business Operations Shona Brown about the meaning of the title. As Laszlo writes in his new book Work Rules, Shona explained that at Google, “HR would be viewed as administrative and bureaucratic,” whereas engineers viewed operations as a credible base of contribution. The brand reflected an underlying set of beliefs, rather than conventional business language that wasn’t well regarded within Google. Thus, by rebranding the HR function around data-driven decisions, operations, and analytics, Google signals the unique culture and values of the job and the organization. The brand sends a message to applicants about what matters, and leads to important conversations with job applicants about fitting in. Equally important, the branding gave legitimacy to a function with stakeholders who were suspicious of its value.
As Laszlo explained: “The problem with personnel and HR brand titles is that at best they’re pejorative, and typically they’re just useless, jargony buzzwords… [People Operations] suggests using a lot of science, and that it’s important and influences people’s decisions.” But the title alone was not enough to change opinions of HR; his team needed to walk the talk by putting the operational emphasis into action. “We look at recruiting, we look at candidate experience, but we also look at supply chain and queuing,” Laszlo says. The result of this job rebranding is clear communication about how HR jobs are unique at Google compared to competitors. As Laszlo told us, the People Ops brand is “attractive because it’s a meaningful, visible signal of ‘things here are meaningfully different.’” In this way, the traditional approach to job titles—with the goal of consistency across organizations—can neglect valuable opportunities to brand jobs more strategically.
Another problem with standardized job titles is that they can seem bureaucratic and send depersonalizing – or even incorrect – messages to others about the importance or reason for a job. In Laszlo’s experience, many strong candidates are turned off by the stigma associated with HR as a soft discipline: “No one says when they’re five years old, ‘I want to be in human resources.’ For people who move into this field from analytics or consulting backgrounds, what they tell me is that it’s a little easier from an ego perspective and a self-esteem perspective to call it something other than HR. Signaling matters.” We’ve seen a similar problem in hospitals, where many patients are confused by the “Nurse Practitioner” title, which does not clearly convey advanced training, specialized skills, and prescriptive authority. Rather than helping others understand our roles and identities, many job titles were designed for organizational record-keeping and administrative ease.
Broadening the case for rebranding job titles
The ability to recruit more of the right kinds of applicants is one important outcome of strategically-branded job titles. But we have discovered several other benefits of rebranding titles that continue after employees are hired. Strategic job titles – and the process of creating them – can help employees remember the organization’s core purpose, can become a vehicle for identity expression, and can even reduce burnout at work. At the largest brewing company in Europe, we held a title innovation tournament with the brewing employees. Some workers were assigned to a control condition, where we used validated scales to gathered data on their work attitudes but didn’t change anything about the work. Other employees were assigned to a retitling condition where they focused on the purpose and process of their work. Each employee in this condition submitted a possible title for the job on their shift (e.g., Quality Beer Distributors, Brewers, and Brewery Technician). Then we put democracy to work – we put the newly-invented titles up on the wall and employees voted on a strategic title. Three months after the retitling tournament (when we conducted our follow-up surveys) the employees in the retitling condition were more satisfied with their work and more identified with the company.
When we studied a non-profit organization and collaborated with a group of hospitals, leaders opened up title rebranding even further and encouraged people to develop their own personalized job titles. These studies showed us that instead of serving as formal mechanisms of bureaucratic control, job titles became strategic vehicles for employee agency, creativity, and coping.
Eyes on the Prize. Part of the power of rebranding jobs is helping employees focus on the core purpose of their work and the mission of the organization. As Laszlo told us, “Names have power. What you call things can make a big difference in how people think about it.” Google found that rebranding HR as People Operations caused people to think about, and think differently about, what they are meant to be doing at work.
The ability of a rebranded job title to highlight purpose was illustrated clearly at the Make-A-Wish Foundation, a nonprofit human service organization whose mission is to “grant the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions and enrich the human experience with hope, strength, and joy.” Although the organization’s mission is creating joy, this can be hard to remember day-in and day-out for employees who develop relationships with children and families in tragic conditions, and have to manage their own feelings of sadness. One staff member told us that it’s difficult to “work with so many kids that are sick… You don’t want to think about it all the time, because it’s really, really sad. That’s the part that’s most emotionally draining—thinking about what these kids are going through, realizing that they’re in and out of the doctor every day, and the strain that it puts on the parents.” In short, the nature of the daily work can make it hard for employees to keep their eyes on the ultimate prize of delivering joy.
To emphasize the Make-a-Wish mission, and to help remind employees why they worked there, the CEO rebranded her job title as “The Fairy Godmother of Wishes.” She said that she wanted the title to be fun in order to emphasize the joy and not the sorrow of working there. She then invited all employees to rebrand their own job titles to supplement their formal title, and emphasized that employees had the freedom to personalize a title that reflected their most important roles and identities in the organization. The new titles were added alongside employees’ standard titles on their business cards, email signatures, and website.
At the time, we were surprised to learn about this re-titling initiative, and even more surprised when employees started inventing – and using – their new titles at work. Although we were skeptical at first, our first-hand observations and in-depth interviews made us begin to wonder whether there were real psychological benefits to retitling work. And as you’ll see later, we collected rigorous empirical evidence in a healthcare setting showing that rebranding job titles can in fact reduce employee burnout.
The results of this rebranding initiative were palpable for employees, in terms of highlighting the ultimate purpose of their jobs. For example, one staff member told us that “[my title] puts things in perspective: this is why I do what I do.” In summary, self-reflective titles helped employees reframe their stressful work in ways that reminded them of its purpose and significance, and also highlighted the unique value they bring to the organization.
Another organization where we learned about rebranded titles was a hospital system in the southeast United States. We conducted a field experiment where we worked with employees in three different hospitals to rebrand their job titles based on the unique value they felt they delivered at the organization. We then facilitated a discussion about when and how it might be appropriate to use the rebranded titles in interactions with coworkers and patients. Participants in the study held lots of different jobs ranging from physicians, nurses, and managers to medical technicians, patient services representatives, and account supervisors. Some examples of personalized titles included: Germ Slayer (physician who deals with infectious diseases), Quick Shot (nurse who gives allergy shots to children), Bone Seeker (x-ray technician), Physical Fitter (scheduling assistant), and Connector (patient services).
Employees in six other hospitals served as control groups. At all sites, we surveyed employees before and afterward about their feelings of burnout, as well as their experiences at work. Empirical results showed that employees who rebranded their titles experienced an 11% decrease in burnout five weeks later, while employees in the control groups did not. The results were statistically significant, and the data showed that decreases in burnout were due to employees bringing their identities to work and feeling more comfortable interacting with colleagues.
The Figure at the top of this article summarizes the important benefits that can emerge when companies are strategic about rebranding job titles. We describe each below.
Affirmation. In addition to reflecting an organization’s unique culture, title rebranding also can affirm employees’ identities. A job title can allow people to express important values of their organization and themselves, every time they use it. Given that our job title is often the first thing we tell people about ourselves in first meetings – inside or outside of work – many people would like it to be self-affirming and communicate something important about who we are. A promotion to “Senior Administrative Assistant” can make an employee feel old rather than able, and can rob credibility from someone who manages six clerical staff, deals with the public, and is responsible for a sizeable budget. One employee in a hospital we studied invented the title “Connector” – allowing her to highlight her role in linking patients with the nurses and doctors that they need, as well as connecting interpersonally with patients, visitors, and other staff. When hiring new team members, the title is strategic in that it allows her to express these central elements the work in an interesting way. In this sense, the job title can act like an identity negotiation tool rather than an inaccurate or embarrassing bureaucratic box. As an employee told us after inventing his title, “It suits me very well to what I do and what I am about.”
Accomodation. Standardized or generic job titles highlight organizational hierarchy and bureaucracy. They can conjure up boxes on an org chart rather than human beings with unique ideas. Rather than encouraging people to do something distinctive, personal, or innovative at work, standardized job titles can suggest rigidity, prescribed behaviors, and fitting into a standardized structure. Unfortunately, hierarchical organizations with bureaucratic cultures are notorious for being “psychologically unsafe” – so that most employees don’t dare to push on the confines of their job description (Edmondson, 1999). They do what is pre-scripted rather than invent or explore new ways to accomplish goals. They hide problems and errors rather than helping others learn from them.
Personalized job titles help address this problem because they downplay hierarchical differences, and signal a willingness to be vulnerable. Rebranding job titles to be self-reflective opens the door for colleagues to view each other as human beings, not merely “role occupants.” After one organization implemented personalized titles, an employee remarked that it helped him “…feel more at ease with other coworkers [by] allowing some barriers to be broken… that environment encourages people to lay their difficulties on the table and try to work things out together.”
Thus, personalized job titles can lead to more innovation, and a greater willingness to connect with others to solve problems rather than ignoring (or hiding) them. Laszlo at Google commented on this: “Even on the first day I joined though, I think it did help because it was honest in talking about what we were actually doing. Using a conventional title triggers all the biases people have. Having a different name causes people to think differently.”