Your job title isn’t everything — but it does matter. When you’re offered a new role, or have been in the same position for some time, how should you think about what title you deserve? How do you decide whether it’s worth negotiating? If you don’t think you can get a raise, should you even ask for a change in your title? And what about the other side of the coin: How should you respond if your boss offers you a promotion in title — with no raise?
What the Experts Say When accepting a new position or angling for a promotion, most people tend to focus on salary negotiation. But your job title should also be part of the equation, says Margaret Neale, professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business and coauthor of Getting (More of) What You Want. It’s “a signal both to the outside world and to your colleagues of what level you are within your organization,” she says, and should be seen as an element of “your compensation package” that affords status and connections and can “help you do your job better.” Your title can also have a big impact on your day-to-day happiness and engagement, says Dan Cable, professor at London Business School. “It is a form of self-expression in the workplace,” he says. “It is a symbolic representation of what you do and the value that you bring.” So, whether you’re eyeing a new role or a new title in your current one, here are some ideas for how to go about it.
Reflect Negotiating or renegotiating your title requires a bit of soul-searching. Why do you want a certain title? And why do you think you deserve it? These are things you need to think through to figure out if you should even make the request. If you’ve been at your company awhile, “it may be that your scope and responsibilities have expanded but your title is the same, and you’re still being paid a level below what you’re currently doing,” Neale says. In that case, a discussion with your boss is probably justified. Or perhaps you’re mulling over new opportunities and want to put yourself in a better position, since prospective employers might use your title as an indicator of how much money you earn. “At a time when companies are less able to ask and people are less willing to share their compensation history, your title is a way for future employers to triangulate your expectations,” she explains. And if you’ve been offered a position at another company, negotiating your title could be a way to tweak your job responsibilities to do more of what you love, Cable says. “Think of it as an opportunity to customize the role more to your skills and interests.”
Do your homework The second step involves identifying a specific title that accurately reflects your expertise, responsibilities, and status within the organization. Use resources like LinkedIn and Glassdoor to look at the titles of peers at different companies. In addition, Cable says, consider what job title would make you feel most valued and empowered. “Think about why you’re effective,” he says. For instance, imagine that you’re a “senior analyst” at a large consultancy “but what you’re really good at is visual presentations involving data. In this case, you might ask for ‘client artist’ to be added to your title, because that’s the area where you shine.” At the same time, you must be mindful of what’s realistic within the context of your firm and industry, Neale says. “In every organization there is a hierarchy. And your title needs to provide information about your level within [it].” If you’re planning to ask for an “avant-garde title,” she recommends that you “make sure you have a more traditional equivalent.” For instance, if you ask for the title of “Chief Motivational Officer,” your business card might spell out that you’re also “EVP, Human Resource Planning.”
Think holistically Next, you need to prioritize. Compared with salary and bonus, job responsibilities, and vacation time and work schedule, how much should you emphasize your desired title as you negotiate your package? “I strongly counsel against single-issue negotiations,” Neale says. “Your title should be part of a multi-issue discussion. So think about all the resources you need to do your job better.” Whether you’re changing jobs or you’ve been at the same organization for years, ask yourself: Which benefits will be most important? If title is one of them, proceed.
Listen first… The most important thing you can do to prepare for the negotiation with your current or prospective manager is to listen. “During your job interviews, you should be sensitive to what people are telling you about the challenges that the organization faces,” Neale says. And “if you’re already inside, you should know what they are.” Try to understand what your superiors care about most and what really worries them, so you can build your case around that. “People are most influenced by their own words and perspectives,” Neale says. “Don’t be so focused on what you want that you don’t hear what your boss wants.”
…Strategize second When preparing your pitch, ask yourself one question: What would make this person say yes? “Think, Which of my boss’s problems would my promotion solve?” Neale says. If you don’t know, you’re not ready for the conversation. It helps to “have a reason to ask,” she adds. Perhaps you just inked a big new deal, executed an important project, or have been offered another job but want to stay at your organization. You’ll also need to make the case that a new title will help you be more efficient and effective in your job, perhaps by giving you added gravitas or credibility. Cable notes that some job titles — particularly personalized ones — “help you build rapport with clients and colleagues.” They “open the door for other people to ask questions about what you do in a unique and personal way,” he says. “That can be really valuable in building authentic and sincere relationships.”
Talk to your boss When the time comes to broach the subject with your boss, Cable recommends coming at the conversation from “a learning mode.” For applicants, “this is a chance to talk about what you can bring to the job” and learn more about how the hiring manager defines success in the role. “You might say, ‘I see that the current job title is ‘Analyst,’ which is fairly generic. If you could rename this title, what might better reflect the role?’” This question, he says, “often leads to a very good, very real conversation.” If you’re already at the organization and would like a new title, Cable recommends showing your boss research that points to the power of job titles to energize workers and boost morale. “Some bosses are rigid and will have an ‘over my dead body’ response. But others might see the issue as timely and interesting and a way to allow their employees more self-expression.” Whatever you do, don’t be a demanding “prima donna.” Project strength but also modesty. Neale suggests highlighting “the solutions that you provide to your boss” and the “skills and abilities you’re using to move the organization forward.”
Be appreciative (to a point) If your manager agrees to your desired title (or some version of it), your first response should be “thank you.” If you’re disappointed that it comes with no other new benefits, remember that it’s not necessarily a one-and-done deal, Neale says — “it’s an ongoing negotiation.” So “take the opportunity in the nicest way possible to clue him in to the fact that, while you’re appreciative, it’s not enough, and you will be back. If you are shut down completely — given no change in title, pay, or any other perk — she suggests asking your boss to provide more detail about “the criteria” that you’re being judged on and how you’ll both know that you’ve “achieved those metrics.” Essentially, the question is, “What would it take to advance?”
Principles to Remember
- Think about your individual circumstances and consider your reasons for wanting a new title. How will a new title help you do your job better?
- Leverage your social network and other online resources to identify possible job titles that reflect your skills, expertise, and status.
- Reflect on your boss’s motivations and challenges. Before you make the request, ask yourself: Why would my current or prospective boss say yes?
- Go overboard with a personalized title. If you’d like one and your employer agrees to it, make sure you have a traditional equivalent.
- Be myopic about negotiating for a better title. Everything — including your salary, job description, and benefits — should be on the table.
- Get discouraged if you don’t get what you want right away. Asking for a new title is an ongoing negotiation.
Case Study #1: Do your due diligence and align the title change with your boss’s priorities Even if you are not seeking a salary increase, asking for a change in job title can “benefit your career and your future job opportunities,” says Sally Kane, the content director at PaperStreet, a Florida-based legal marketing agency. She speaks from experience.
Earlier in her career, Sally was hired as the managing editor for a national trade magazine targeted at paralegals. Her job responsibilities included managing the editorial content of the magazine, overseeing a small internal team and a group of freelancers, and working with vendors on special projects.
After six months on the job, Sally began to think that her title didn’t accurately describe her position of authority. “I thought a new title would help me gain credibility with vendors and other writers,” she says.
She also recognized that a different title would look better on her résumé. “I saw my position as a stepping stone,” she recalls. “I knew I wouldn’t be there forever.”
So she did a little homework, starting with LinkedIn and Glassdoor. “I wanted to be very data-driven and gather facts that would support my case,” she explains. So “I looked to see if there were titles that more closely aligned with what I was doing. I also checked peer publications with a similar size and circulation to find out what their editorial structures looked like.”
She decided to ask her boss — the owner and publisher of the magazine — to promote her to editor-in-chief. At that point, she was happy with just a new title; she didn’t want to ask for a raise.
Before making the request, she strategized by thinking about how the title change would help him achieve his goals. He was eager to make the magazine more visible within the industry and to build its brand.
Then “during our conversation I told him that changing my title would help me better position the publication: I’d be able to secure more speaking engagements at conferences and would carry more weight with vendors,” she recalls.
Her boss agreed and changed her title immediately. Six months later, during her annual review, Sally received a commensurate pay raise.
Case Study #2:Understand that your compensation package — including your salary, perks, responsibilities, and title — is an ongoing negotiation After Rhonda Rees graduated from college, she landed an entry-level job at a small public relations firm in the Los Angles area. “My job title was PR assistant,” she recalls. “I was green and, because it was an entry-level position, nobody had any real expectations of me.”
Rhonda was determined to absorb everything she could about the PR business. She viewed her boss — we’ll call him George — as a “mentor.” George saw Rhonda’s potential and gave her an increasing amount of work and responsibility. “A lot got dropped in my lap,” she says.
But she wasn’t bitter about it; rather, she was eager to prove herself. “I discovered I had a knack for bringing in business because I loved cold calling,” she says. “It wasn’t long before I started bringing in the bread-and-butter clients.”
George was pleased with Rhonda’s work — and he told her so. “It was his idea to put me on commission,” she says. “In addition to my salary, I got 10% in commission, and I was content with that. I just kept doing what I was doing.”
As other employees moved on to other jobs and George spent more and more time on the golf course, Rhonda’s workload increased further. And yet she was still just a PR assistant, which meant she had to work even harder for clients to take her seriously.
She eventually realized she needed a title to match the role she played. “At first I thought I was doing the job of an account executive, but then suddenly I was doing the job of an account supervisor,” she says. “I remember thinking that George considered me to be that informally, but I still didn’t have the title.”
She decided to talk to him. “I went into his office and explained all th