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The menace of the overblown job title

Terrible epithets confuse and infuriate, but that has done nothing to stem the tide

Wall Street banks are always getting into hot water, but it’s generally over something more exciting than a job title. Not so last week when it emerged that a senior banker claimed he was given a fancy fake title when he joined Morgan Stanley in Frankfurt three years ago purely to fool European regulators into thinking the bank was obeying Brexit rules.

Since the UK left the EU regulators have urged big global banks to run their EU operations with local staff rather than bosses in London. This banker was made “head of loan trading”. But during an appeal against his dismissal from Morgan Stanley he told a court his boss had made it clear the title “only existed on paper” and had just been created to satisfy financial watchdogs.

Morgan Stanley disputed the banker’s claims in the hearing and denied he had a token title. But the case was a bracing reminder of how fraught the apparently trifling matter of a job title can be.

There is of course much about titles that is deeply trifling. We live in a world where bosses have called themselves Captain of Moonshots (Google’s Astro Teller), Chief Underpants Officer (Joe Boxer founder Nick Graham) and more recently, Technoking of Tesla (Elon Musk).


It is also true that perfectly sensible companies continue to come up with titles that are utterly baffling. PwC advertised last year for a Global Verbal Brand Identity Senior Manager, a job it said involved “advancing verbal identity practices” and “working effectively with cross-disciplinary teams and across languages to unify as a single brand”.

I asked the firm at the start of last week if it could explain precisely what the role entailed. I was still waiting for an answer on Friday.

There is also no need to revisit the unbreakable corporate addiction to making half a workforce “vice-president”, nor the explosion of titles with the word “chief” in them. But I will just say that when I asked LinkedIn about the prevalence of such titles they came back with the arresting news that in the UK the biggest growth in jobs with the title “chief” in recent years has been “chief growth officer”.

In any case the truth is that for many workers there has never been anything trivial about titles and, unhappily, there are signs that things are becoming trickier.

More than once I have seen people reduced to red-faced rage after learning that their standing in the pecking order at work has slipped because a rival or a new recruit has secured a puffier job title. It makes no difference if the puffee was granted the title instead of a pay rise or higher starting salary. And the tragedy is only compounded if their actual job is humbler than their grand title suggests.

Alas, some headhunting firms say this job-title inflation has grown so much since the pandemic that it outstripped the actual inflation that has rippled across the world.

Robert Walters, a British recruitment group, says its market data shows that during the past 12 months there was a 46 per cent rise in the number of UK and Ireland job adverts that had the words “lead” or “manager” in the title but required no more than two years’ experience.

That is partly because new businesses in sectors such as crypto and fintech helped to fuel competition for staff who in turn used their market power to negotiate their chosen titles, said Daniel Harris, a Robert Walters director.

But this strategy can easily backfire, he told me, and not just if it riles colleagues. A junior lawyer who manages to secure the title of general counsel in a start-up could struggle to move to a bigger firm if their prospective employer learns the reality of their actual role.

Likewise, people who manage to be made “global” head of something, no matter how local the role, sometimes scrub the word from their CVs because potential employers assume they are too senior for a job.

Still, I don’t see the title-inflation problem disappearing soon. Not that long ago Harris was working with a small business that was keen to hire a man who insisted on being called “global general counsel”. Thrilled to secure the appointment without stumping up a higher salary, the firm swiftly agreed and told Harris: “He can be called emperor of the world if he wants.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024