A Closer Look at Titles

Have you ever thought about how important someone’s title is to them? We know that people who have advanced academic and professional degrees have titles such as Dr. or Prof. and these titles remain affixed to their name even if they are not related to their position within an organization.

Then here are other titles that depend on the specific position a person has in an organization and may also reflect the nature of their responsibilities in the agency. For example, someone who is the “Executive Director” or “Director General” (in Israel), is thought to be the most senior person in the organization and would be characterized in North America as the Chief Executive Officer. A title like this has several functions. It clearly identifies who is administratively responsible for the organization and where the “buck stops.”

When looking at positions in an organization we try to link the title to the obligations and responsibilities that are involved in fulfilling the job. This process can often be part professional and part political. Job titles are not only important for the person in their present position but they also have implications for their employment in the future.

Often there is an important psychological element to a title that has an impact on how a person looks upon her responsibilities and how she perceives the way other employees view what they do and how they do it. In particular, this dynamic becomes very important in large organizations with a considerable number of employees. When there is a defined hierarchy then it can impact on the way people work together.

For many years I worked in a large nonprofit organization with many of departments and each department was divided into a number of divisions and working groups. Many of the employees were quite conscious of their title in relation to other employees in parallel divisions of the organization. This had an impact on veteran employees who would be in positions that did not provide opportunities for advancement. When a decision was made to grant employees new titles the people in senior positions had to be taken into consideration. They were in positions that had no opportunities for advancements and there were no venues for moving up in the organization. When a person’s title was changed it was then threatening to those people in supervisory positions.

A CEO wants to acknowledge the contribution staff members make in implementing the organization’s goals and programs. At the same time, she does not want to insult or offend other employees who may be making a valuable contribution by performing their tasks in a commendable manner. Thus, the real issue is how to use a title to both recognize employees’ responsibility and to acknowledge their contribution to the organization.

Often an organization’s structure develops over time and people find themselves in their positions with their respective titles more through inertia than design. However, there is another way to build an organization’s structure and applicable titles. This involves a thoughtful planning process that takes a variety of factors into consideration.

Periodically, every organization should perform an “internal audit” where the CEO and the staff have the opportunity to review the organization’s purposes, goals and programs. Integral to this review is examining the structure and its appropriateness and functionality as related to the organization’s goals. When appropriate these processes provide opportunities for reconfiguring employees’ positions and with that, their respective titles.

An example is an organization that after a year increased its activities and therefore needed to divide up the responsibilities of executive staff team. This team consisted of department heads who were overseeing the work of a number of staff units. There was a need to re-arrange the responsibilities of the executive staff members and of the staff members in each of these units. Of course everyone was concerned about the implications of the reorganization.

An organizational consultant was engaged to conduct an “organizational inventory” that focused on understanding each staff position on both the executive and the unit levels. This process consisted of formulating job descriptions defining each individual’s job. Based on this analysis, an organizational chart was prepared detailing the relationships among the employees and a separate document suggesting appropriate titles for the staff members.

The materials presented to the CEO, the executive team and the unit staff members focused on creating a language for the titles that would communicate both the position of the person’s job in the organizational hierarchy, as well as their responsibilities. There was an attempt to provide each person with a title that related to their duties and acknowledged their personal contribution to the organization.

The success of the process was not only in the final product that provided an instrument the organization could use for the next three to five years, but also one that the staff felt they participated in creating. The “buy-in” from the staff was very important. It meant that the new structure and titles were not being imposed on the employees, but that they actually participated in creating an equitable way to recognize who they were and what they contributed to implementing the agency’s purpose.

Often nonprofit organizations have limited resources and do not have many ways to demonstrate their appreciation for the contributions the employees make in implementing the agency’s services. An appropriate title often means a great deal to the staff and although it does not take the place of increased compensation during difficult economic times, it can do a great deal to strengthen the employee’s attitude toward their work on a day to day basis. It is well worth the time and effort it takes an organization to development appropriate and well-defined titles for staff members.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.