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What’s in a Name? Strategies for Reviving a Culture During Turbulent Times

Posted by Elaine Varelas  May 4, 2009 10:06 AM

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By Elaine Varelas

Manager of Customer Delight.
Chief People Officer.
Director of First Impressions.

These titles may seem like names for silly jobs you would only find in an offbeat company like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. In fact, these jobs do exist in the real world. You just may recognize them by their more staid monikers—Customer Service Representative, SVP Human Resources, and Receptionist.

But these job titles are anything but silly. In fact, they reflect a sound strategy for inspiring employees and reinvigorating a tired corporate culture. For resource-strapped HR managers (or Chief People Officers) looking to build enthusiasm and cohesiveness among recession-stricken troops, redefining roles and titles can give organizations a much-needed shot of adrenaline to motivate employees in a stilted economy.

Could these unconventional titles work in your organization? Do job titles really matter? Do employees care what their job is called, as long as they know what they’re supposed to do? In fact, titles do matter. While there’s nothing wrong with light-hearted or whimsical titles, company leaders should not just make up outrageous or extraordinary titles just to placate anxious workers. This isn’t just a distraction technique—producing rainbows, teddy bears, and balloons in place of bonuses and promotions—to while away the time until the economy rebounds. This is a legitimate strategy to better define people’s roles and responsibilities in the organization and get them excited about the work they do.

As we all learned in grade school, language is powerful. It can frame the way people look at themselves their careers and the organization. It also sends a message to clients, customers, and leaders. This is who we are, what we stand for, and what we want to be. This is a way to help people take pride in their jobs and their organizations.

If titles are assigned creatively and purposely, people may have an even better understanding of their role in the company. By giving people impressive and directive job titles and descriptions, organizational leaders and HR managers can help improve the company’s culture in an economical way. It can also help boost productivity and morale at a time when the economy has placed many employees on edge.

Redefining people’s titles can also help them hone in on their job responsibilities, especially if the new titles are framed in terms of expectations and results. The titles should explain the roles’ main focus. For example, the title of Corporate Trainer could be changed to Director of Managerial Expertise. Instead of the title describing what the person does (I train people), it can mirror what the person is responsible for accomplishing (I help managers refine their skills). Creating this results-driven type of title can help give employees a renewed sense of purpose in their workdays.

Titles are tied closely to the organization’s culture in many ways. They can give a positive or negative impression to clients, customers, and future employees about how the organization treats its people. Titles can assign value to a person’s place in the company. For instance, those titles that are known by their three capital letter acronyms (CEO, CFO, CIO) are usually held in high regard. You don’t typically see entry-level positions referred to in this format. Not many of us are familiar with the MRC (Mail Room Clerk) or PLA (Parking Lot Attendant).

Titles can also give insight into relationships within the company. Does the VP’s voicemail say, “Press one to speak to my assistant,” or “Press one to speak to my colleague Chris.”? Is there an implied level of respect or implied caste system in place?

If you’re considering reconfiguring job titles at your organization, here are some questions you may want to think about:

Does the title reflect the role?
Is it purpose- or results-driven?
Is it respectful?
Does it inspire?

It is also wise to invite employees to give their input. What do they think their titles should be?

At a time like this, when business is slow and budgets remain tight, there is a great opportunity for HR managers to focus on the organization’s culture. Take advantage of this unfortunate situation by redefining roles and giving people new goals to strive towards. For most companies, there isn’t much money to dedicate to raises, promotions, major culture initiatives, or even social events, but by examining employees’ jobs and titles, company leaders can help revive a sluggish workforce, add some flair and fun to the workday, and show people they are valued.

Elaine Varelas is Managing Partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm headquartered in Boston, and has over 20 years of career development and HR experience. She also serves on the board of directors for Career Partners International, the world's largest career management partnership. E-mail her at

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About HR Columns

Featuring human resources advice and columns from The Boston Globe's On Staffing and Hire Authority writers.