Job Title Inflation: What’s in a Name?

Spend a little time on LinkedIn, and you’re bound to see job titles that don’t quite match up with reality.

It’s pretty easy to imagine how it happens. Maybe a company trying to retain talent offers a bigger title — but not all the responsibilities and pay that should follow. Or maybe a job hunter, frustrated by some uncredited work, finds an inventive way to describe their last role.

No matter how they arise, inflated job titles can have long-term effects on employees, organizations, and ultimately, on recruiters who have to comb through exaggerated titles to find qualified candidates.

Why Does Job Title Inflation Occur? 

Job titles are a key part of an employee’s currency on the labor market and can affect how someone’s career progresses, how much money they make, and even their status among peers and customers. And just like with any asset, a disconnect between the supposed value and the fundamental truth can end poorly.

Experts say that title inflation can usually crop up in a few ways. Vanity titles, for example, are quite common in the startup world, especially at companies that lack a clear organizational hierarchy. With fewer rungs on the corporate ladder, promotions might occur less often — but that doesn’t stop companies from offering title-only upgrades, where employees assume a more prestigious job title without a pay increase or added responsibilities. 

Title inflation can also manifest itself through bizarre word choices. Take, for example, a customer service representative who holds a title like “customer happiness hero.” These types of titles are created to attract talent and make an environment seem laid-back and inviting, but they’re often empty buzzwords that don’t offer any information about the role.

OK, But What’s the Problem?

Unfortunately, this actually devalues the title and the employee, and makes it more difficult for them to land a job in the future. It also can wind up keeping employees at the company longer than they want, because when they try to move on to a new job with a similar title, they realize they don’t meet the qualifications. 

So whether a company is offering hollow titles or employees are fudging it themselves on their LinkedIn profile, it can hurt in the long run. Here’s why. 

Hindering Career Growth

In most cases, a job title correlates to the amount of money an employee earns. Promoting an employee to a new job title without added responsibility or pay can affect their career path down the road. 

They may apply for similar roles at other companies, only to find out they’re unqualified. They might miss out on job opportunities that recruiters assume they’re overqualified for. And if they’re hired into a role with a matching title at a different company, they may struggle to perform the expected responsibilities and requirements. 

Employees may also have trouble explaining their inflated job title and the path that led them there. For example, if a sales rep now holds the title VP of sales, they’ll have to articulate what made them ready for such a dramatic leap. If the story doesn’t quite add up, employees will struggle to find a new role that’s on the same level as their current title.

Making Recruiters’ Jobs More Difficult

Digging into an individual’s background is part of a recruiter’s job. If a resume and title align with a job opening, a recruiter may think they’ve found a solid candidate. But Alison Dennison, a talent acquisition team lead at ZoomInfo, says the initial discovery call often reveals whether an applicant actually has tangible experience. 

“During the call, I’ll ask for specifics, like, ‘Tell me about a time when you designed a website,’ and if they can’t answer, I can tell there’s misalignment,” Dennison says. 

In her experience, job title inflation is often unintentional.

“Sometimes, it’s simply that candidates didn’t read the job description and think they would be a good fit for the role,” she says. “Or maybe a candidate catered their resume to the job description, but they don’t actually have the skills. It can be very unintentional, but nevertheless, it makes our job more difficult.”

Recruiters sift through hundreds of applications per job posting. If an employee’s value isn’t immediately clear through their job title and resume, they’re likely to get passed over for a position they may be totally qualified for.

Making Hiring More Challenging

It might feel like an easy win for an employer — reward employees with a title-only promotion without offering more cash. But this actually increases the burden for everyone involved. 

When those employees decide to move on, hiring managers have to fill their role. If they stick with the same inflated title, they’ll have to compete with the market price — and odds are, they can’t meet it. 

“People want to be able to describe what they do in terms of impact and mission, but titles often don’t articulate that,” says Peter Laughter, the founder of True Bearing and an entrepreneur with 25 years of recruiting experience. “That’s why organizations need to focus on how they communicate the purpose and impact of a position.”

It’s better for everyone to have titles with correct responsibilities and compensation. But how should you proceed if you’ve already fallen victim to title inflation or you’re looking to avoid the misstep altogether?

Consider the following options: 

  • Create a standardized title-naming convention for your company. For example, at ZoomInfo we use graded tiers (1–2–3) within each level to help set expectations for employees. That might mean a tier 3 individual contributor would be promoted to a tier 1 manager. 
  • Align titles with other companies in your industry.
  • Identify and articulate the purpose behind each position as it relates to their team and the overall business.
  • Create clear and accurate job descriptions that lay out responsibilities and requirements. 
  • Involve the proper stakeholders in establishing the naming convention, including HR and hiring managers. 
  • Design a competency map that clearly lays out how an employee can progress to the next level.
  • Have managers hold quarterly check-ins with all employees to talk specifically about career development and evaluate their performance. This will help keep everyone on the same page. 

As we continue to see more attrition across industries during the Great Resignation, it’s even more important to make these changes quickly. 

“Title inflation will remain problematic for companies because you can’t get away with not paying people what they’re worth by giving them an extra couple of words on their title,” Laughter says. “If titles are what you’re relying on to attract people, you’ve already lost.”