Strategic job branding

13 Sep 2017 | LinkedIn article

Our job titles say a lot about us. They are powerful symbols about who we are, what we can do, and what others can expect from us. In this sense, a job title is a brand that communicates expectations. So obviously job applicants pay a lot of attention to what a job is called when deciding where to apply and whether to accept.

But for many organizations, job branding is not very strategic. Job titles often send the wrong signals and fail to attract the best applicants. In fact, the traditional view on job branding is about standardization and benchmarking. As the thinking goes, most organizations need similar tasks completed, so generic titles are a form of shorthand, allowing firms to treat bundles of work as commodities that command similar rates of pay across companies. For example, the US Department of Labor devoted more than a decade of resources to create the O*Net database, a comprehensive tool for job analysis that wouldn’t work without standardized jobs and job titles.

On the other hand, job branding can be strategic and help firms differentiate. ‘Imagineer’ captures greater applicant attention than ‘Computer Hardware Engineer’ when Disney is recruiting. ‘Imagineer’ also generates self-selection, because it is more attractive to the right types of job applicants who have a personal interest in the intersection of engineering and storytelling, while discouraging applicants who seek normal engineering work. Finally, ‘Imagineer’ reflects Disney’s unique company culture and encourages candid discussions of how engineering is different at Disney. The title inspires conversations between applicants and recruiters about the way that storytelling and technology can join up to create magic and make the impossible possible. A strategic job title helps you target your ideal applicants and convey the unique nature of the work you want them to do.

Adam Grant, Justin Berg and I studied and worked with a number of organizations that have rebranded jobs, and entire functions, to strategically attract and retain the right type of people. For example, in 2006 when Laszlo Bock was recruited to Google from GE to be ’Vice President of People Operations and Analytics’, he was surprised that the job title didn’t have Human Resources in it. He was intrigued, but also ‘worried that an oddball title like People Operations would make it that much harder to find another job’ if his stint with the much smaller Google did not work out. This led him to talk with then-SVP of Business Operations, Shona Brown, about the meaning of the title. As Laszlo writes in his new book Work Rules, Shona explained that at Google, “HR would be viewed as administrative and bureaucratic,” whereas engineers viewed operations as a credible base of contribution. The brand reflected an underlying set of beliefs, rather than conventional business language that wasn’t well regarded within Google. Thus, by rebranding the HR function around data-driven decisions, operations, and analytics, Google signals the unique culture and values of the job and the organization. The brand sends a message to applicants about what matters, and leads to important conversations with job applicants about fitting in. Equally important, the branding gave legitimacy to a function with stakeholders who were suspicious of its value.

As Laszlo explained: “The problem with personnel and HR brand titles is that at best they’re pejorative, and typically they’re just useless, jargony buzzwords…[People Operations] suggests using a lot of science, and that it’s important and influences people’s decisions.” But the title alone was not enough to change opinions of HR; his team needed to walk the talk by putting the operational emphasis into action. “We look at recruiting, we look at candidate experience, but we also look at supply chain and queuing,” Laszlo says. The result of this job rebranding is clear communication about how HR jobs are unique at Google compared to competitors. As Laszlo told us, the People Ops brand is “attractive because it’s a meaningful, visible signal of ‘things here are meaningfully different.’” In this way, the traditional approach to job titles—with the goal of consistency across organizations—can neglect valuable opportunities to brand jobs more strategically.

Another problem with standardized job titles is that they can seem bureaucratic and send depersonalizing – or even incorrect – messages to others about the importance or reason for a job. In Laszlo’s experience, many strong candidates are turned off by the stigma associated with HR as a soft discipline: “No one says when they’re five years old, ‘I want to be in human resources.’ For people who move into this field from analytics or consulting backgrounds, what they tell me is that it’s a little easier from an ego perspective and a self-esteem perspective to call it something other than HR. Signaling matters.” We’ve seen a similar problem in hospitals, where many patients are confused by the ‘Nurse Practitioner’ title, which does not clearly convey advanced training, specialized skills, and prescriptive authority. Rather than helping others understand our roles and identities, many job titles were designed for organizational record-keeping and administrative ease.

 

Broadening the case for rebranding job titles

The ability to recruit more of the right kinds of applicants is one important outcome of strategically-branded job titles. But we have discovered several other benefits of rebranding titles that continue after employees are hired. Strategic job titles – and the process of creating them – can help employees remember the organization’s core purpose, can become a vehicle for identity expression, and can even reduce burnout at work. At the largest brewing company in Europe, we held a title innovation tournament with the brewing employees. Some workers were assigned to a control condition, where we used validated scales to gathered data on their work attitudes but didn’t change anything about the work. Other employees were assigned to a retitling condition where they focused on the purpose and process of their work. Each employee in this condition submitted a possible title for the job on their shift (e.g. Quality Beer Distributors, Brewers and Brewery Technician). Then we put democracy to work – we put the newly-invented titles up on the wall and employees voted on a strategic title. Three months after the retitling tournament (when we conducted our follow-up surveys) the employees in the retitling condition were more satisfied with their work and more identified with the company.

When we studied a non-profit organization and collaborated with a group of hospitals, leaders opened up title rebranding even further and encouraged people to develop their own personalized job titles. These studies showed us that instead of serving as formal mechanisms of bureaucratic control, job titles became strategic vehicles for employee agency, creativity, and coping.

Eyes on the Prize. Part of the power of rebranding jobs is helping employees focus on the core purpose of their work and the mission of the organization. As Laszlo told us, “Names have power. What you call things can make a big difference in how people think about it.” Google found that rebranding HR as People Operations caused people to think about, and think differently about, what they are meant to be doing at work.

The ability of a rebranded job title to highlight purpose was illustrated clearly at the Make-A-Wish Foundation, a nonprofit human service organization whose mission is to ‘grant the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions and enrich the human experience with hope, strength and joy’. Although the organization’s mission is creating joy, this can be hard to remember day-in and day-out for employees who develop relationships with children and families in tragic conditions, and have to manage their own feelings of sadness. One staff member told us that it’s difficult to “work with so many kids that are sick…you don’t want to think about it all the time, because it’s really, really sad. That’s the part that’s most emotionally draining – thinking about what these kids are going through, realizing that they’re in and out of the doctor every day, and the strain that it puts on the parents.” In short, the nature of the daily work can make it hard for employees to keep their eyes on the ultimate prize of delivering joy.

To emphasize the Make-a-Wish mission, and to help remind employees why they worked there, the CEO rebranded her job title as ‘The Fairy Godmother of Wishes’. She said that she wanted the title to be fun in order to emphasize the joy and not the sorrow of working there. She then invited all employees to rebrand their own job titles to supplement their formal title and emphasized that employees had the freedom to personalize a title that reflected their most important roles and identities in the organization. The new titles were added alongside employees’ standard titles on their business cards, email signatures and website.

At the time, we were surprised to learn about this re-titling initiative, and even more surprised when employees started inventing – and using – their new titles at work. Although we were skeptical at first, our first-hand observations and in-depth interviews made us begin to wonder whether there were real psychological benefits to retitling work. And as you’ll see later, we collected rigorous empirical evidence in a healthcare setting showing that rebranding job titles can in fact reduce employee burnout.

The results of this rebranding initiative were palpable for employees, in terms of highlighting the ultimate purpose of their jobs. For example, one staff member told us that ‘[my title] puts things in perspective: this is why I do what I do’. In summary, self-reflective titles helped employees reframe their stressful work in ways that reminded them of its purpose and significance, and also highlighted the unique value they bring to the organization.

 

Empirical evidence

Another organization where we learned about rebranded titles was a hospital system in the southeast United States. We conducted a field experiment where we worked with employees in three different hospitals to rebrand their job titles based on the unique value they felt they delivered at the organization. We then facilitated a discussion about when and how it might be appropriate to use the rebranded titles in interactions with coworkers and patients. Participants in the study held lots of different jobs ranging from physicians, nurses, and managers to medical technicians, patient services representatives, and account supervisors. Some examples of personalized titles included: Germ Slayer (physician who deals with infectious diseases), Quick Shot (nurse who gives allergy shots to children), Bone Seeker (x-ray technician), Physical Fitter (scheduling assistant) and Connector (patient services).

Employees in six other hospitals served as control groups. At all sites, we surveyed employees before and afterward about their feelings of burnout, as well as their experiences at work. Empirical results showed that employees who rebranded their titles experienced an 11% decrease in burnout five weeks later, while employees in the control groups did not. The results were statistically significant, and the data showed that decreases in burnout were due to employees bringing their identities to work and feeling more comfortable interacting with colleagues.

The figure at the top of this article summarizes the important benefits that can emerge when companies are strategic about rebranding job titles. We describe each below.

Affirmation. In addition to reflecting an organization’s unique culture, title rebranding also can affirm employees’ identities. A job title can allow people to express important values of their organization and themselves, every time they use it. Given that our job title is often the first thing we tell people about ourselves in first meetings – inside or outside of work – many people would like it to be self-affirming and communicate something important about who we are. A promotion to “Senior Administrative Assistant” can make an employee feel old rather than able, and can rob credibility from someone who manages six clerical staff, deals with the public, and is responsible for a sizeable budget. One employee in a hospital we studied invented the title “Connector” – allowing her to highlight her role in linking patients with the nurses and doctors that they need, as well as connecting interpersonally with patients, visitors, and other staff. When hiring new team members, the title is strategic in that it allows her to express these central elements the work in an interesting way. In this sense, the job title can act like an identity negotiation tool rather than an inaccurate or embarrassing bureaucratic box. As an employee told us after inventing his title, “It suits me very well to what I do and what I am about.”

Accommodation. Standardized or generic job titles highlight organizational hierarchy and bureaucracy. They can conjure up boxes on an org chart rather than human beings with unique ideas. Rather than encouraging people to do something distinctive, personal or innovative at work, standardized job titles can suggest rigidity, prescribed behaviors, and fitting into a standardized structure. Unfortunately, hierarchical organizations with bureaucratic cultures are notorious for being ‘psychologically unsafe’ – so that most employees don’t dare to push on the confines of their job description (Edmondson, 1999). They do what is pre-scripted rather than invent or explore new ways to accomplish goals. They hide problems and errors rather than helping others learn from them.

Personalized job titles help address this problem because they downplay hierarchical differences and signal a willingness to be vulnerable. Rebranding job titles to be self-reflective opens the door for colleagues to view each other as human beings, not merely ‘role occupants’. After one organization implemented personalized titles, an employee remarked that it helped him ‘…feel more at ease with other coworkers [by] allowing some barriers to be broken…that environment encourages people to lay their difficulties on the table and try to work things out together.’

Thus, personalized job titles can lead to more innovation and a greater willingness to connect with others to solve problems rather than ignoring (or hiding) them. Laszlo at Google commented on this: “Even on the first day I joined though, I think it did help because it was honest in talking about what we were actually doing. Using a conventional title triggers all the biases people have. Having a different name causes people to think differently.”

Association. Finally, rebranding job titles to be more distinctive can make it easier for employees to connect with people outside the organization, or even outside their immediate area. This is because a personalized job title offers others something distinguishing and unique for others to respond to, compared to a generic title. Rebranded job titles can stimulate real conversations in ways that formal, bureaucratic titles rarely do. As the CEO in one of our studies explained, the rebranded titles serve as ‘an icebreaker for people we meet; it opens up dialogue’. A hospital employee told us, ‘When a patient is angry, I use my title to defuse the situation…it makes a good conversation and good rapport,’ and a healthcare employee reported, ‘I bring it up when I introduce myself to new patients’. When we asked Laszlo at Google how people outside the company respond to his function’s brand, he said, “Business people think it’s fantastic. Any time I’m asked to speak or when advertisers or partners visit, one of the questions invariably is ‘Why is it called people operations?’ which gives me the opportunity to explain how what we do is different.”

Because personalized titles increase employee attraction, affirmation, accommodation and association, it is likely that their value will increase in the years to come. Personalized titles are more consistent with the increasing premium that members of the Millennial generation place on self-expression at work and they also reflect trends toward customizing employee experiences in organizations. For example, it is increasingly common for employees to take on idiosyncratic jobs that lack existing titles and resist direct comparisons to other organizations. It also is increasingly normal for employees to negotiate idiosyncratic, personalized employment arrangements (inside and outside the organization). In this sense, organizations that develop competence with rebranding job titles to be more personalized may be better positioned for effective human resource leadership in the future.

 

The process of rebranding

Based on our research, we propose a methodology for leaders who want to experiment with rebranding job titles. We have found that the process of encouraging employees to re-think about their existing titles – and then carefully invent the most appropriate title for their work – constitutes much of the value the emerges from rebranding. This is because the exercise causes job incumbents to ask themselves: ‘What is the purpose of the work itself and what is my unique connection to the work?’ Most employees knew the answers to these questions at some point, but it is easy to forget in the midst of day-to-day hassles and pressures.

Giving people time and space to reflect on the purpose of their work can invigorate meaning and help them remember the why of the work and how the job can be a means of expressing themselves to other people. Thus, our proposed process not only results in a new external ‘marker’ (a rebranded job title) but also results in a cognitive reappraisal which focuses people on the more meaningful and rewarding elements of their jobs. In our studies, we conducted the job rebranding process in large groups, but these discussions also can be carried out one-on-one as discussions that managers have with individuals or small teams of employees. There are two stages, as discussed below.

Reflect and deliberate. The goal of the first stage is to introduce the concept of rebranding job titles and get people thinking about the most appropriate job title from their perspective as the producer, rather than from the perspective of standardization and organizational job structure. There is not a formula for creating the perfect job title, but there are two sets of questions that help employees think about their work and the goals of their job. These reflections can open employees’ perspectives and inspire them about how they could rebrand their title so that it more accurately reflects the value they create.

First, employees can focus on the people they serve in their job and the purpose of their work. One of the most interesting ways to activate this conversation is to ask employees to write about who is affected by their work. This may be only one person or it may be a group of stakeholders. Most employees can point to one or two beneficiaries that their job focuses on (although some employees claim they have no customers, which also can lead to productive conversations). Naturally, external-facing employees such as sales people or consultants have an easier time with this question, but it is surprising how even people in these roles have to sometimes remind themselves of the different stakeholders they serve at work. By reflecting on what a job is supposed to create – within the organization or outside in the world – employees can review the different products of their work, and what the products are supposed to do. It can be useful for employees to consider overlap, divergence, or conflict between different customers.

Even more interesting, however, is asking employees to write down their customer’s customer – who are they trying to serve? For example, it was easy for a sales person of an online services company to point to traditional print newspapers as her customer, because her goal is to sell this customer on the service of creating web content out of the printed news. However, the salesperson gave a quizzical look when asked who is the customer of that customer – that is, who is the newspaper’s customer? This led to a conversation about how it is easier to understand and help your customer when you know who they are trying to impress and sell to. This set of reflections focuses employees on the people who are affected by their work, who they serve, and who is let down when they perform poorly or thrilled when they perform well.

Second, employees can reflect on the identity that they can show through their work. Just as it is natural for organizations to emphasize certain values, it is natural for different employees to bring different strengths and perspectives to a job. Organizations want to differentiate themselves to job applicants and other stakeholders, and employees want others to know them for themselves and not just a standardized job title. If leaders want to rebrand an entire function, the focus of this identity conversation will be the organization, and ‘how we do things differently from competitors’. In this discussion, employees can reflect on the way their jobs can help differentiate the organization. Other leaders will encourage job rebranding at the employee level because it is self-affirming and motivating for an employee to think about the unique qualities and traits he or she brings to the workplace. That is, by contemplating what they are doing when they are at their best, employees can reveal elements of their work they feel particularly proud of. These identities can be combined: For example, there may be ways that a particular physician or scheduling counselor interacts with patients and staff at a hospital to help make her organization stand out as special – as a place patients want to choose when they have a choice of healthcare providers.

In summary, by considering the purpose and identity goals that employees perceive in their work, they can pull back from the work-a-day routines, habits, and processes and remember why and how they do their work compared to other employees and other organizations. These reflections can inspire them to remember the higher-order goals of the work, and help them brainstorm about job titles that not only are a more accurate reflection of the work, but of themselves.

Invent and socialize. After the reflection process, ask employees to think about their current job title, and then make a judgment about the extent to which it is an accurate reflection of the way they add value to the organization. These percentages, across employees, can serve as one measure of how much the existing job titles might benefit from rebranding. Next, ask employees to use their insights from the reflection stage to create several new job titles that more accurately reflect the role and the unique way they add value in the role. Crowdsourcing new options for a more meaningful title not only captures the wisdom of the people who actually do the work, but the democracy of naming their own work can be an engaging process.

Some employees like to work together in brainstorming teams while others prefer to work alone. Depending on the employees’ maturity level and degree of engagement with the organization’s purpose, it may be beneficial for leaders to initiate a discussion about how the rebranded titles will represent the organization. This discussion can lead to useful reflections about the organization’s external image, and the signals that the job titles might send internally and externally.

The final decision about which specific title to adopt from the list of potentials that are generated can be made by an individual employee (about his or her own job), by the shift or group that the title will represent, or by a leadership team if rebranding an entire function. In our title tournament with the brewing employees (described above), we put all of the employee-generated titles on the wall and people voted with stickers as they walked around the room. Another option is to randomly pair each of the employee-generated titles and hold a more structured tournament where employees use anonymous voting buttons to decide which title of each pair was better. The set of possible rebranded titles is thus reduced democratically to a final faceoff, and the winner of the tournament becomes the new title used both within the company and for recruiting.

Once the title rebranding process is complete, leaders can facilitate a discussion about when and how it might be appropriate to use the new titles in interactions with stakeholders. For example, some hospital employees decided that it is not always worthwhile to use their new self-reflective titles, but they would use them as they felt it was appropriate. Moreover, we have found that some human resources departments prefer to retain the existing titles for their internal organizational chart, so that decisions around training, promotion processes and pay levels can remain intact.

It is useful for leaders to hold a ‘Lessons Learned’ meeting a few weeks after employees begin using their new personalized titles. It is likely that they will share stories about novel and interesting ways of using the title in conversations and how the titles connected with customers and led to interesting interactions. This also will give the team a chance to reflect on whether the titles are ‘working’ for employees, and allow employees who were not interested in title rebranding to learn more about how and why personalized titles can be advantageous. Based on our experience, it is likely that the themes of self-affirmation, rapport with external customers, and psychological safety will emerge.

 

Will it work for me?

It is possible that great corporate brands allow some firms to rebrand their job titles more successfully than other firms. For example, it is possible Google and Disney can get away with unusual job titles more easily than less recognized or dominant companies. Whether a more strategic job title can work at your company depends on a lot of factors, including not only your firm’s reputation but also whether a newly-branded title is attractive to your target employment market. Thus, even though applicant self-selection is likely to be valuable in the long run, it might be useful to road-test a potential job title among your best employees and get a sense of their reactions. Then you could start socializing the new title in conversations with job applicants, to gauge their reactions.

Several of the organizations we worked with used traditional job titles to hire and train people, but then encouraged employees to rebrand their titles once they have a sense of their unique strengths and how they play to those strengths on the job. This ‘mass customized’ approach to rebranding balances the legitimacy of a standardized title with the choice and control of personalizing a title. As such, internal job rebranding has the added benefit of increasing employees’ self-expression at work, and also increases the odds that the culture will become more psychologically safe to employees.

A risk of creating a better job title is that it will be copied by the competition. Several other organizations have duplicated Google’s ‘People Operations’ moniker since they developed it, because many firms saw the improvement over ‘Human Resources’. This suggests that some of the benefits of a great title rebrand may fade over the long run, as the titles become less differentiated in the employment marketplace. Related, it is possible that the strategic lift that occurs internally, in terms of a rebrand increasing employee engagement and reducing burnout, may wear off across time. This may be particularly true in organizations where the more general culture is hierarchical and not employee-centered, so that the title rebranding effort seems like a lone engagement effort rather than fitting into the broader culture.

Perhaps even more problematic, however, is what can happen if a rebranded title is overblown or unrealistic. It may be interesting to rebrand a receptionist job as a ‘Company Ambassador’, which would likely make it easier to attract more qualified applicants. But if the job does not actually provide an opportunity to represent the organization to external stakeholders, the title just paints an unrealistic job preview. As Laszlo Bock told us, “It’s just as bad to apply a label to something if it’s not a meaningfully, materially different label. The reason ‘People Operations’ mattered, and other companies have adopted it, is that we’ve approached what we’re doing very differently. I would tell companies, only make that change if you’re going to do things differently.”

In this sense, it is important that the rebranding doesn’t move too far from the day-to-day activities, so that it stays true to what people actually do and create on the job and does not become hyperbole. This reflects an important continuum in job titles, ranging on one hand from standardized job titles that provide no strategic or marketing benefits, to an over-branded job title that serves as an interesting hook for stakeholders but is not good for the business in the longer-term.

Rebranding may be especially useful in jobs that are most critical in differentiating your organization, where you need to attract very specific types of job applicants to execute your strategy. And, rebranding might be particularly advantageous in jobs where effective performance demands rapid relationship-building. In service encounters, when employees have only moments to form first impressions, self-reflective titles may assist employees in differentiating themselves – and their organizations’ services – by making a memorable and authentic first impression. As Nurse Quick Shot explained, “It is great when a patient will ask for me by using my new title. When I am going to give vaccines to children, they remember my new name and use it when they return to the office.”

 

Final thoughts

Leaders want to attract more of the right types of applicants that fit their unique culture. Employees seek a sense of distinctiveness and self-expression. But most leaders have overlooked the possibility of rebranding job titles to be more strategic. Even though job titles are powerful symbols, companies often under-utilize that power by using standardized and outdated titles. Branding job titles around the ‘why of the work’, unique cultural traits and employees’ personal identities can have important effects on how outsiders respond to the jobs and how people in the jobs see themselves. Our research has shown job title rebranding as a novel and inexpensive way for employers to navigate the ‘optimal distinctiveness’ of their identities and those of their employees. The role of the organization is to legitimize rebranded job titles from the top-down and the role of employees is to customize expressive job titles from the bottom-up. This way, rebranding job titles isn’t just about recruiting top talent in the first place, but also motivating them by increasing purpose once they are on the job.

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