In the good old days, our biggest worry was whether Vice President titles were being handed out too liberally. Now, according to an article in this month's Knowledge@Wharton, title inflation has made its way to the C-suite.
As the article tells us:
We're all familiar with titles like chief executive officer, chief financial officer and chief operating officer. We have even grown used to chief technology officer, chief marketing officer and chief diversity officer.
But what about chief talent officer, chief cultural officer, chief innovation officer, chief privacy officer, chief reputation officer, chief apology officer and chief geek, to name just some of the more contemporary titles that have cropped up in today's companies? What happened to corporate hierarchies where there were only a few chiefs and many, many subordinates reporting to them?
Part of the reason for title inflation is that titles represent a cheap way to recognize employees and their contributions. As the article say and many of us have long suspected, these titles often come in lieu of pay increases when budgets are tight and in lieu of promotions in organizations with less hierarchy to climb. But there can be other (presumably more legitimate) reasons as well, including
- The desire to signal the importance of a particular issue to the organization (as in chief ethics officer), or
- The wish to communicate that the role has shifted from an operational to a strategic one (e.g., from training director, tucked within the human resources function, to chief learning officer, in a function all its own).
But the authors advise caution: Too much title promotion can create cynicism (no!) or, as Wharton management professor Ben Campbell tells us, "dilute the 'currency' of the title structure."
Betsey Stevenson, Wharton professor of business and public policy, in the spirit of the widely read and much blogged-about recent Wall Street Journal article The Most Praised Generation Goes to Work (paid subscription required), offers this final explanation:
She wonders whether the people pushing for higher titles are "the same ones who, as students, pushed for 'A's and caused grade inflation. Now they are making it into the corporate world and they want big titles." She recalls a psychological study that looked at students from 1970 through today and concluded that the more recent entrants into the job market are significantly more spoiled and self-absorbed than their predecessors. The people who are getting inflated titles, she says, "could be part of what is an increasingly narcissistic generation."