Exciting Job Titles Can Be Powerful Recruiting and Retention Tools

It’s pure genius. The approach that I call “Compelling Job Titling” involves giving a job a compelling title, and because it costs virtually nothing, it may have the highest ROI of any single recruiting and retention tool.

That may sound like an outrageous statement but consider the example of “the genius bar” at Apple’s retail stores. From all accounts, the job itself is not particularly unique (you simply help resolve customer product problems) but with the job, you get the official company bestowed title of “genius.” Simply by giving this job a compelling name, Apple has been flooded with applicants and once in the job, geniuses stay longer than the average Apple retail employee. And the best part is that these powerful recruiting and retention results from providing exciting job titles come at no cost to the company. Currently popular compelling job titles include Jedi, Rockstar (used for over 2,000 jobs) and Ninja (used for over 8,000 jobs).

The Power of the “Genius” Title

You certainly don’t have to be a genius to get the “genius” job at Apple. There are no stated IQ or degree requirements for the job, and knowledge of Apple products isn’t even required. The title of “genius” at an admired firm like Apple is by itself compelling. Any Apple store manager can tell you that regular Apple store employees strive for months and even years to become a genius. The title alone may make your family proud of you and it will certainly help you in making new friends. And the title may even impress future employers.

From the organization’s perspective, you should also realize that there may also be significant direct business benefits because your customers may also assume that a title like genius or expert actually means that the people with the title are extremely well qualified. As a result, a title like this may mean more sales and a stronger product brand.

More Examples of Compelling Job Titles

Years ago, Starbucks demonstrated its understanding of the value of compelling titles with the use of “barista” for its coffee servers and the “coffee master” black apron to demonstrate a superior level of coffee expertise. The “geek squad” (now a part of Best Buy) is another illustration of Compelling Job Titling. As a result of the wild popularity of the #1 syndicated show “Big Bang Theory,” being labeled as a geek no longer carries the negative connotation that it once did.

Even the conservatively managed Best Buy has decided to make its compellingly named “geek squad” more prominent in the marketing and product areas in order to take advantage of its positive name recognition. The leaders of the geek squad go further than simply providing team members with a title; they also get to drive “a cute” and colorful VW bug with the name “geek squad” painted boldly across both sides. Other firms that have a history of using compelling job titles include Google and Microsoft, as well as many startups that use non-corporate job titles because they help get the person and the startup noticed.

The Power of a Title

For a few days, I actually had the official title as the “Godfather of Talent”; that is, until corporate nervousness forced a title change to the more mundane Chief Talent Officer. The goal of the Godfather title was to send a message to employees and potential applicants that our approach to talent management was different. The power of a title has been known for years but it has been used as a recruiting tool primarily on individual candidates. Any experienced recruiter knows that individuals frequently take jobs with low pay or other faults simply because the job has an impressive title. But for some unexplained reason, the strategic practice of “Compelling Job Titling” has seldom been implemented throughout major corporations.

Recruiting leaders and managers have been happy to accept the job names provided by the compensation function, even though the titles that they have traditionally provided not only have no panache but many are simply dull! A few firms have made small attempts at more compelling job titles by changing the title of “secretary” to administrative assistant, or by calling employees “associates.” But what I am proposing is a more strategic companywide effort to use marketing and branding techniques to make the development of compelling titles for key jobs a major recruiting and retention tool.

The desired impacts from a compelling job title

Compelling job titles are sales tools that can have five major results, including:

  1. Confidence — the title gives the person hearing it confidence in the ability of the person in the job
  2. Performance level — the job title may also infer a high level of performance
  3. Understand the job — the job title, although unique, still unambiguously reveals what the job entails. The title also needs to be easily found with a job search string using traditional job titles.
  4. It drives action — when a qualified person hears the job title, they instantly want to know more about the job and they should think “someday I’d like to have that job.”
  5. The job description reinforces the action — the content of the job description equals or exceeds the selling power of the compelling job title. 

Factors That May Make a Job Title Compelling

In order to qualify as compelling, the job title should meet one or more of the following criteria.

  • It discloses the impact of the job (receptionist = director of first impressions)
  • It makes you want to find out more about the job
  • It reveals excitement and maybe even challenge
  • It makes you think
  • It is memorable or catchy
  • It is intriguing or interesting
  • It is humorous
  • It is provocative
  • It describes the job’s goal or impact
  • It includes foreign sounding words or a title (i.e. barista)
  • The title mirrors or sounds like a famous movie/TV title or character (i.e. the Terminator)
  • The title infers a high level of influence in the organization (i.e. AVP at a bank)

Examples of Compelling Words for Inclusion in Job Titles

Here are some quick examples of compelling words that might be included in a compelling job title. Note: many of the job titles used here as examples are the titles for real jobs.

  • Rockstar/badass (e.g. software rockstar)
  • Expert (e.g. systems expert or customer service expert)
  • Master (e.g. master electrician or master mixologist)
  • Virtuoso (e.g. teambuilding virtuoso)
  • Specialist (e.g. financial specialist)
  • Connoisseur (e.g. cheese connoisseur)
  • Champion (e.g. service champion or integration champion)
  • Advocate/evangelist (e.g. customer advocate or IT pro evangelist)
  • Coach (e.g. customer choice coach)
  • Doctor (e.g. car doctor)
  • Guru/Kahuna (e.g. social media guru)
  • Wizard / Wiz (e.g. software wizard)
  • Star (e.g. design star)
  • Ace (e.g. ace service provider)
  • Professor (e.g. professor of sound)
  • Chief (e.g. chief of service or chief recruiter)
  • Warrior/Jedi/Ninja (e.g. service warrior or retail Jedi)
  • General (e.g. supply train general)
  • Ambassador (e.g. ambassador of great beer)
  • Terminator (e.g. problem terminator or bug terminator)
  • Investigator/detective (e.g. complaint investigator or software bug detective)
  • Czar (e.g. marketing czar)
  • Advanced (e.g. advanced trainer)
  • Principal (e.g. principal accountant)
  • Artist (e.g. cake artist or office design artist)
  • Authority (e.g. SEO authority)
  • Hotshot (e.g. hotshot service pro)
  • Maestro (e.g. maestro of yogurt)
  • Overlord (e.g. digital overlord)
  • Trailblazer (e.g. applications trailblazer)
  • Creator/Magician (e.g. creator of happiness or change magician)

In addition to titles and job descriptions, employees can be given symbols of excellence to excite them. For example, the black apron to demonstrate a superior level of coffee expertise at Starbucks. 

Action Steps to Implement a “Compelling Job Titling” Strategy

If your recruiting or management team decides to adopt a “Compelling Job Titling Strategy,” here are a list of action steps to consider.

  • Develop strategic program goals — develop measurable goals for the compelling job title program. These goals should include impacts on recruiting, retention, employer branding, job satisfaction/engagement, as well as business impacts.
  • Put together a business case — work with the CFO’s office to identify and quantify potential benefits of the program. Demonstrate to senior leadership the potential high impact and low cost of the program. Consider running a pilot on a single job to demonstrate its business impacts.
  • Identify targeted jobs — start with identifying high-volume jobs or job families where recruiting and retention has been a problem. Next identify high-impact and mission-critical jobs where a better title might bring in higher-quality candidates.
  • Get compensation out of the picture — at most firms, marketing and sales skills are a rarity in the compensation function (I’m being kind here). For a targeted job, do not let compensation utter a word about comparability for salary surveys, compensable factors, or equity. The focus needs to be on improving recruiting and retention.
  • Benchmark other compelling job titles — identify benchmark examples, especially in your industry. Search job boards, company websites, and work with external compensation consultants to identify any existing compelling titles that can be adapted to your firm.
  • Involve market research — work internally with market research, branding, and product development to understand the processes that they use for naming products. Your job titling approach should mirror those proven data-driven naming processes.
  • Identify the components of a compelling job title — put together a list of the factors or characteristics that change a job title from interesting to compelling (see the list below). Survey applicants, recruiters, your employees, and people in similar jobs at other firms at conferences or on LinkedIn, in order to identify any compelling words to include or bad words to exclude. Remember the title must be written so it impresses applicants, jobholders, and their friends, colleagues, and family.
  • Involve your employees — involve your employees who work in the job to get their suggestions and buy-in. Also work with a sample of applicants to get their feedback and suggestions. Always pretest any title with incumbents before you finalize it.
  • Pretest the new name in a position announcement — post a few sample position announcements with the new name to see if it has a measurable impact on the number and quality of applicants.
  • Fix the job description also — a great title will only get you so far if the position description for the job is painfully dull. So it’s also wise to adopt a corporate wide strategy for making job descriptions more compelling. Once again, a data-driven marketing effort must be undertaken to determine how job postings and position descriptions can be modified so that they also serve as compelling sales tools. Again work with employees in the positions to find the aspects and the wording that will excite outsiders. I suggest that you look up the Apple genius position description because it clearly fits the definition of compelling.
  • Program results metrics — at the end of the year, survey your new hires in the targeted job during onboarding to see if the compelling job title appears on their list of reasons for applying or accepting the job.

Final Thoughts

The time has passed for lawyers and job analysts to dominate the creation of job titles and job descriptions. Today recruiting and HR professionals need to realize that job titles and job descriptions are both marketing and sales tools that can have a tremendous impact on recruiting, engagement, retention, and product sales. Currently job titles are under-managed at large corporations. It’s time for recruiting to take charge and put together a strategy and program to ensure that for at least key jobs, the title and the content of the job both become key selling and branding points. The costs are minimal but the results can be amazing. The only real roadblock is a lack of courage.

About the Author

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Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations. He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of Talent Management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations / organizations in 30 countries on all 6 continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR and the Financial Times. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring”, Staffing.org called him “the father of HR metrics” and SHRM called him “One of the industries most respected strategists”. He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked #8 among the top 25 online influencers in Talent Management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website www.drjohnsullivan.com and on www.ERE.Net. He lives in Pacifica, California.
  • http://www.ere.net/author/justin-miller/ Justin Miller

    I have to disagree with this article. Perhaps it’s different in the HR world, but I know that for years now recruiters have been experiencing backlash over superlatives in job titles. I actually wrote an article on here a few weeks ago about it: http://www.ere.net/2012/07/31/the-death-of-superlatives-in-job-ads/

    I took to Quora to get people’s insight on the issue, and to say the response was one-sided would be an understatement. There were 40 votes and all of them were anti-superlatives.

    I think the main point to make is, these types of tactics may work for junior or entry-level people, but more senior-type professionals won’t take them seriously.

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  • Ken Schmitt

    Hmmm… I think we need to be very careful with this approach. Although you make some great points regarding the usefulness of this type of tool, it is something that as recruiters we see going overboard very easily. Using buzzwords and titles that are accurate descriptions of job titles and performances in a specific industry is important. “Secretary” just doesn’t cover the full spectrum of tasks an assistant does these days. However, over-glamorizing a title can also backfire. Not only can it devalue a position if the title is lacking legitimate substance, but it can dilute the impact of a specific title as well.

    My philosophy is simple: be authentic. Emphasize what it is you do FOR your employer/company not just what you do AT your job. Each employee offers something to the business as a whole. Detailing those things will allow for a potential boss to see exactly what you have to offer. Be honest and show just how much your current or past company benefitted from your presence. Your contributions will shine on their own without needing catchy titles or superlative descriptions.

    The best way to do this, in my experience as a the owner of an executive career management and recruiting firm, is to search job listings in your industry. Keep your finger on the pulse of what is valued, what is important and what hiring managers are looking for. Be sure to use those things on your resume. Show how YOU meet THEIR needs.
    Ken Schmitt
    http://www.turningpointsearch.net

  • Keith Halperin

    Thanks Dr. Sullivan, They should have let you keep the title of “Godfather of Recruiting”, because then, like the legendary “Godfather of Soul” James Brown OBM who was called “the hardest working man in Show Business”, you would have been the “hardest working man in Recruiting”.

    IMHO, there are two appropriate titles for those who would choose a title instead of something like more money, better benefits, more influence, etc:
    1) Company Fool
    2) Corporate Idiot

    You can call ME anything you like, except late to pick up my check! YOWZA!!

    Cheers,

    Keith “Recruiting Kingpin” Halperin

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/jacobsmadsen Jacob Madsen

    Well written piece and despite the comments (K. Halperin, – why are you always in more or less all ERE article respects opposite and negative!!) I think Dr Sullivan makes a very comprehensive description of what this is about and what it must cover. Hey this is altogether pretty innocent stuff, if it makes a candidate sit up and pay attention and react, then that is what this is about, – nothing more than that.

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  • Keith Halperin

    @ Jacob:
    “K. Halperin, – why are you always in more or less all ERE article respects opposite and negative!!)”
    You can call me cynical, sarcastic, and bitter, but don’t call me negative. 😉 I write the way I do because: “I come not to praise Caesar, but to bury him (or her)”… With the exception of Dr. Sullivan (and a few others), much of what is written here are common-sense platitudes dressed up as profound wisdom, idealized theoreticals far from the day- to-day world of ordinary recruiters (like me), or self-serving infomercials for the latest and greatest recruiting snake oil. If I get people really angry or really excited or really amused about recruiting, or maybe even get them to THINK, then I’ve done my job here on ERE.

    Cheers,

    Keith

  • Keith Halperin

    @ Jacob:
    “K. Halperin, – why are you always in more or less all ERE article respects opposite and negative!!)”
    You can call me cynical, sarcastic, and bitter, but don’t call me negative. 😉 I write the way I do because: “I come not to praise Caesar, but to bury him (or her)”. With the exception of Dr. Sullivan (and a few others), much of what is written here are common-sense platitudes dressed up as profound wisdom, idealized theoreticals far from the day- to-day world of ordinary recruiters (like me), or self-serving infomercials for the latest and greatest recruiting snake oil. If I get people really angry or really excited or really amused about recruiting, or maybe even get them to THINK, then I’ve done my job here on ERE.

    Cheers,

    Keith

  • http://linkedin.com/in/danielsloop Daniel Sloop

    Know your ideal customer, what they value, and how to establish their interest. Cute titles repel the best prospects for most positions. Creating a good title for marketing a position is about infusing opportunity and clarity, not fluff and buzzwords.

  • Keith Halperin

    Well-said, Daniel.

    -kh

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  • http://www.onlymarketingjobs.com Simon Lewis

    Bestowing so-called ‘glorious’ job titles may make employees feel amazing but often they are misguided, not relating at all to the job in hand and, in as many cases as not, convincing the job title owner that they are better than they are, which leads to remuneration disputes. If people are really so stupid to take on a job because of its title, good luck to them but, for me, this is typical American nonsense.

  • James Scott

    I learned a long time ago titles are meaningless. You can call me anything you want, what are you paying me and what am I doing in reality? No one works for a title and if they do they are fools. People work for money from the CEO of a Fortune 100 Co. to the janitors that clean his Executive bathroom. Take away either ones pay and tell them they will no longer be paid and see how long they show up for their “title”. I am about to write my own Job Description for a tech start up VP Title. That is all fine and dandy but I am still the one doing all the work at this time with no team to manage but myself and some software developers. Call me crap shoveler for a title I don’t care just pay me!