Are we still obsessed with designations?

People’s obsession with designations isn’t a new phenomenon, and it doesn’t seem to be fading any soon either

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People feel proud to have fancy job titles. And why shouldn’t they? After all, we all work hard to achieve stable positions of authority and power so that others can look up and aspire to be like us. Job titles tell a whole story about a person’s status and influence in a company. Anyone who has a high position within an organisation will wield a certain kind of respect that isn’t accorded to others.

Our culture has long promoted this attraction to titles. A person’s importance grows with the higher positions he or she attains within an organisation. Since everyone wants to be somebody, this obsession with designations is only fair because they come to be a measure of the value of a person and his/her overall worth in the society.

However, in the evolving world of work, we talk about flatter organisations with open work culture. We also have specialist – who usually prefer to work solo. Besides gigs are increasing their numbers in the workforce. In this new world of work, can we say that designations are losing its shine?

“As organisations grow in size and complexity, the intricacy and cross-functionality of job roles increases, and often, the two aspects of performance management become entwined, resulting in promotions happening without enhancement in job roles”

Pankaj Lochan, CHRO, Jindal Steel and Power

Biswaroop Mukherjee, head – HR, commercial vehicle business unit, Tata Motors, says, “Designations still matter because they’re a way to gauge a person’s social status.”

For instance, people put their designations on Linkedin, share them with their family and friends, which gives them wider recognition as professional achievers, says Mukherjee.

There is a sense of personal accomplishment attached to a high-level designation as well. That is how our social systems are today. With new ways of work, flatter organisation structures, agile organisations, and project-based teams emerging in the days ahead, this paradigm will also undergo change. For now, however, a designation remains important.

Maneesha Jha Thakur, HR consultant , says “Designations are very important to people because they are a way of signalling success to the world. It is also a way to assure oneself of one’s organisational and personal worth.”

According to Thakur, in India, the love for designations and growth in designations sometimes even supersedes the need for money. Employees are very competitive about it. “Sadly, the quest for designations is hollow because the focus is not on the role, responsibilities, authority or learning opportunity, but only the title,” rues Thakur.

“In recruitment, comparison of designations across companies by employees can be problematic, since titles and designations are internal structures of the organisation,” stresses Thakur, going on to say, “Often, companies add layer after layer of designations to satiate this need and be attractive in the talent market.”

In the long run, however, Thakur cautions that “this compromises the organisational structure, makes it vertically steep with too many layers, messing up operations, decision making and HR systems. It also renders designations and titles meaningless.”

“The quest for designations is hollow because the focus is not on the role, responsibilities, authority or learning opportunity, but only the title”

Maneesha Jha Thakur, HR consultant

Organisations are certainly responsible in perpetuating this rabid affection for designations.

Pankaj Lochan, CHRO, Jindal Steel and Power, explains the intense focus on designation through four cases in which the organisations are likely or unlikely to promote their employees to a higher role.

In the first case, an employees are promoted even though they are not moved to a higher job role. This means, they may get a promotion based on good performance, but there is not much difference in their responsibilities. There is no added work that comes with a higher job role, but the title indicates a bigger position.

In the second case, the employees are promoted and their job role is elevated as well.

In the third case, employees are moved to a higher job role, but do not receive a promotion. In other words, they carry out responsibilities meant for a higher job but are not given the title.

In the fourth case, employees are neither moved to a higher job role, nor granted a promotion.

The problem, Lochan explains, arises primarily in case 1, when people are promoted even while their job roles remain the same. There is no change in their responsibilities, which means that the title becomes a mere decoration, and people are likely to flaunt their improved designations because of the societal importance that has been accorded to them.

“Organisations have confused measurement of performance with measurement of potential,” asserts Lochan.

Measurement of potential means judging how well the employees are able to perform at a high- level job and carry the responsibilities, and then granting them the title based on the same.

“Designations still matter because they’re a way to gauge a person’s social status”

Biswaroop Mukherjee, head – HR, commercial vehicle business unit, Tata Motors

Measurement of performance means when the organisation looks at high-performing employees and grants them a promotion without considering whether they possess the potential to succeed in this role with the added duties.

“As organisations grow in size and complexity, the intricacy and cross-functionality of job roles increases, and often, the two aspects of performance management (performance rating and promotions) become entwined, resulting in promotions happening without enhancement in job roles. In such cases, it is important to correct (restore) the pyramidal shape of the organisation structure, while keeping the right spirit of ‘promotions’ alive,” enumerates Lochan.

Empty titles do more harm than good, because people become image conscious and pay less attention to what they are supposed to do at work.

Society has taught all of us to look up at people in higher positions and aim to be like them. In following this thought process, we have become even more focused on how our job title elevates us in other people’s eyes than what it actually means.

It is only through a proper re-examination of organisational practices and reforms that we will be able to move past our obsession with designations and look at them without any false sense of inflated pride.

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