Should today’s multi-skilled workforce banish job title hierarchy?


Fancy a boardroom meeting with a ninja, a sheriff or an overlord?

I got an email from the mayor last week.

It contained detailed comments on a feature I was writing. I was rather chuffed and the comments were extremely useful.

But it wasn’t from Boris. And it wasn’t from the Lord Mayor of the City of London. It was the Mayor of Wordville, a marketing agency based in Marylebone.

The feature of course, was this one. Should we do away with traditional job titles? Should we do away with titles altogether?

Lucy George, AKA the mayor, tells me that at Wordville they model themselves on a frontier town complete with a sheriff and night watchman.

“This approach works in our creative office,” extolls the mayor. “A talking point with outsiders, an ‘open’ title allows members of the team to step out of their job roles when opportunity arises.

“Wild West titles lay open a whole frontier of new opportunity – shape your job as your skills and ambitions dictate. If you’re worrying more about what it says on your business card than what it says on you’re to do list you’re a bit short sighted in our view.”

It certainly sounds like fun doesn’t it. Wild West job titles might not be everybody’s cup of sarsaparilla but it throws up questions about how relevant people’s job titles really are.

Edward Boches, chief innovation officer at Boston-based marketing agency Mullen suggests a business card with boxes to be ticked to pin point areas of expertise.

“True it’s easier to hold onto legacy systems and practices and, in this case, labels,” writes Boches in his blog.

“We’ve grown dependent on them. They’re familiar and comfortable. But eventually we have to break ourselves of the crutches we continue to lean on: how we incentivise people, the departmentalization of our companies, the processes and systems that in some cases haven’t changed in years. Maybe even get rid of titles.”

The idea of getting rid of job titles completely may well seem ridiculous. How would people know what you do? How senior you are? Where your skills lie? But it’s not completely out of the realms of possibility. One of the most lauded systems of stripped back titles is that of Bill Gore (creator of Gore-Tex fabric) and his “lattice” organisation.

The lattice method is based on four principles, freedom, fairness, commitment and waterline (a waterline situation involves consultation with other associates before undertaking actions that could impact the reputation or profitability of the company and otherwise “sink the ship”).

Basically, everybody is an associate with no specific job title. There is no sign of hierarchy and people are free to choose to work on projects based on their own judgement. Leaders are not appointed but emerge.

A problem emerged when it came to scale as the structure doesn’t work with more than a couple of hundred people so they limited the teams to 200 people.

Does it work? Last year W. L. Gore & Associates enjoyed its 14th consecutive year on Fortune magazine’s annual list of the 100 Best Companies to Work for in America so something is certainly working.

“Okay when we were a wide eyed start up but when you begin to do business in the US it is critical that you have titles”

Jeremy Brown, CEO of Sense Worldwide

This utopian way of working clearly has its merits in certain situations. But finding business owners who strongly believe that no or non-traditional job titles can work in globalised businesses are hard to come by.

Jeremy Brown, CEO of Sense Worldwide started his business using no job titles but found that actually, this kind of strategy isn’t sustainable.

“I’ve come full circle on job titles,” he tells me. “I was always against titles from the get go, instead everybody had their story on their business cards. (Jeremy’s story states “Jeremy Brown started it. Sense Wolrdwide is his fault….Jeremy is the protagonist, the horn blower, the evangelist…the one who doesn’t make much tea.”)

“Okay when we were a wide eyed start up but when you begin to do business in the US it is critical that you have titles, you need to play the game and titles carry a certain weight. It’s even more important in Asia. Even the way people sit at a table in a Japanese restaurant is based on rank. You need titles when you grow up as a business.”

Yvonne Smyth, director at Hays, the leading recruiting expert agrees: “From a practical perspective job titles are important from three angles, internal, external and career wise.

“The concept of losing them comes in and out of fashion, it is an on-going hot topic that easily lends itself to start up businesses, looking to forge an identity in competitive marketplace. Every now and then, corporate London also looks at it and says “let’s give it a go” and then changes its mind.”

The arguments for titles are plentiful.

First of all, your employees are likely to want them. As Ben Horowitz writes, “When your head of sales interviews for her next job, she won’t want to say that despite the fact that she ran a global sales force with hundreds of employees, her title was “Dude.”

There are the issues around understanding who does what. Who do you go to with certain tasks, questions etc.

“Formal job titles tell us where we stand, what our responsibilities are and who we need to go to in an organisation,” says Chris Gee, executive commercial director, SilverDoor.

“They are only a needless restraint if you don’t ensure that your business is run properly and you don’t recruit the right people in the first place.”

Job titles can add an element of transparency to your business which is necessary not only to save time but also to let everybody know where they stand.

“The reality of most is that once they reach a certain size they have to go into a complex matrix. There is the need to get things done, if you have a flat structure then it takes longer to get things and find the person responsible, titles are a very useful tool.”

Titles have become an even more useful tool during the recession. At times when companies don’t have the resources to hand out raises, job titles are a cheap way to keep employees happy.

Job titles are also a good way to attract talent. If two companies are bidding for the same person, an employer can up the game by upping the job title.

You might not be surprised to hear that the Mark Zuckerberg school of business teaches a different strategy. At Facebook, Zuckerberg bestows titles that are below the industry standard. Every new start is re-levelled when they enter the company. This makes sure that newbies don’t get higher titles and positions than better performing existing employees.

This boosts morale and increases fairness. But would it work outside of the world’s biggest social network?

“If you work in that environment and have a brand that is so significant people will come to you, then it is great,” says Smyth. “But in the wider commercial world it wouldn’t work. Zuckerberg can rely on the strength of the brand.”

The reality is that job titles mean a lot to people. They are both a reason to move to an organisation and a reason to work harder once you’re there.

“They are intended to clarify, not confuse,” says Smyth. “It is true that sometimes they are mismanaged and people can be misrepresented by their title by either working far beyond their remit or by not being capable but this is the job of an organised HR department with clear career development strategy to manage. Job titles fulfil the human need for recognition and progression.”

A utopian world where everyone is equal and visible by their actions rather than their title is a nice idea but perhaps not for everyone. Save perhaps Gore and his legions of happy workers.

I am however, looking forward to the day I get an email from the night watchman.