KIM JONG IL, the North Korean dictator, is not normally a trendsetter. But in one area he is clearly leading the pack: job-title inflation. Mr Kim has 1,200 official titles, including, roughly translated, guardian deity of the planet, ever-victorious general, lodestar of the 21st century, supreme commander at the forefront of the struggle against imperialism and the United States, eternal bosom of hot love and greatest man who ever lived.
When it comes to job titles, we live in an age of rampant inflation. Everybody you come across seems to be a chief or president of some variety. Title inflation is producing its own vocabulary: “uptitling” and “title-fluffing”. It is also producing technological aids. One website provides a simple formula: just take your job title, mix in a few grand words, such as “global”, “interface” and “customer”, and hey presto.
The rot starts at the top. Not that long ago companies had just two or three “chief” whatnots. Now they have dozens, collectively called the “c-suite”. A few have more than one chief executive officer; CB Richard Ellis, a property-services firm, has four. A growing number have chiefs for almost everything from knowledge to diversity. Southwest Airlines has a chief Twitter officer. Coca-Cola and Marriott have chief blogging officers. Kodak has one of those too, along with a chief listening officer.
Even so, chiefs are relatively rare compared with presidents and their various declensions (vice-, assistant-, etc). Almost everybody in banking from the receptionist upwards is a president of some sort. The number of members of LinkedIn, a professional network, with the title vice-president grew 426% faster than the membership of the site as a whole in 2005-09. The inflation rate for presidents was 312% and for chiefs a mere 275%.
Title-fluffing is as rampant among the indians as among the chiefs. America’s International Association of Administrative Professionals—formerly the National Secretaries Association—reports that it has more than 500 job-titles under its umbrella, ranging from front-office co-ordinator to electronic-document specialist. Paper boys are “media distribution officers”. Binmen are “recycling officers”. Lavatory cleaners are “sanitation consultants”. Sandwich-makers at Subway have the phrase “sandwich artist” emblazoned on their lapels. Even the normally linguistically pure French have got in on the act: cleaning ladies are becoming “techniciennes de surface” (surface technicians).
What is going on here? The most immediate explanation is the economic downturn: bosses are doling out ever fancier titles as a substitute for pay raises and bonuses. But there are also structural reasons for the trend. The most basic is the growing complexity of businesses. Many not only have presidents and vice-presidents for this or that product line, but also presidents and vice-presidents for various regions. Put the two together and you have a recipe for ever-longer business cards: vice-president for photocopiers Asia-Pacific, for example.
The cult of flexibility is also inflationary. The fashion for flattening hierarchies has had the paradoxical effect of multiplying meaningless job titles. Workers crave important-sounding titles to give them the illusion of ascending the ranks. Managers who no longer have anyone to manage are fobbed off with inflated titles, much as superannuated politicians are made Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster or Lord President of the Council. Everybody, from the executive suite downward, wants to fluff up their résumé as a hedge against being sacked.
Firms also use fancy job titles to signal that they are au fait with the latest fashion. The fad for greenery is producing legions of chief sustainability officers and green ambassadors. BP’s travails will undoubtedly have the same effect: we can expect a bull market in chief safety officers and chief apology officers.
The American technology sector has been a champion of title inflation. It has created all sorts of newfangled jobs that have to be given names, and it is also full of linguistically challenged geeks who have a taste for “humorous” titles. Steve Jobs calls himself “chief know it all”. Jerry Yang and David Filo, the founders of Yahoo!, call themselves “chief Yahoos”. Thousands of IT types dub themselves things like (chief) scrum master, guru, evangelist or, a particular favourite at the moment, ninja.
But leadership in title inflation, as in so much else, is passing to the developing world, particularly India and China. Both countries have a longstanding obsession with hierarchy (fancy job titles can be the key to getting a bride as well as the admiration of your friends). They also have tight labour markets. The result is an explosion of titles. Companies have taken to creating baffling jobs such as “outbound specialist”. They have also taken to staging public celebrations of promotions from, say, assistant deputy director to principal assistant deputy director.
Inflated benefits, understated drawbacks
Does any of this matter? Title inflation clearly does violence to the language. But isn’t that par for the course in the corporate world? And isn’t it a small price to pay for corporate harmony? The snag is that the familiar problems of monetary inflation apply to job-title inflation as well. The benefits of giving people a fancy new title are usually short-lived. The harm is long-lasting. People become cynical about their monikers (particularly when they are given in lieu of pay rises). Organisations become more Ruritanian. The job market becomes more opaque. How do you work out the going rate for “vision controller of multiplatform and portfolio” (the BBC)? Or a “manager of futuring and innovation-based strategies” (the American Cancer Society)?
And, far from providing people with more security, fancy titles can often make them more expendable. Companies might hesitate before sacking an IT adviser. But what about a chief scrum master? The essence of inflation, after all, is that it devalues everything that it touches.