What Is a Job Title?

Most groups rely on specialization and hierarchy to organize people and teams in order to achieve collective goals. Even the most self-consciously egalitarian organizations depend on clear demarcations between who is responsible for which tasks and responsibilities and who is accountable to whom. To facilitate communication inside and outside, companies give individuals descriptive names to identify their purpose. These labels are known as”job titles.”

How Companies Use Job Titles

Practices around job titles vary by company, industry, profession, organization size and culture. The two most common elements of a job title relate to function and seniority. For example, the title of “marketing manager” implies that the employee works in marketing, of course, and works at the rank or level of manager. In many companies, the title of “coordinator” might be more junior, and a “director” or “vice president” might be more senior in that same marketing team.

[Read: 13 Signs You May Be Facing a Layoff.]

Confusion can reign when comparing titles across organizations. For example, client-facing companies like commercial banks are famous for giving “vice president” titles early in an employee’s tenure. These vice presidents are not second in line to the president in the federal government sense, but rather the title is intended to make the client feel as if he or she is dealing with a real decision-maker. Likewise, a “director” at a Fortune 500 corporation might be very senior, while the same title at a small or young organization is entry-level. Even the executive moniker of “chief” as in CTO or CEO can be surprisingly pedestrian in a small startup.

Organizations also use job titles to display cultural clues. For example, companies that want to portray a funky irreverence might call the senior human resources officer the “chief people officer,” rather than the more staid “chief human resource officer.” At another company, a vice president of customer service might be the “VP of delighting customers.”

How Job Seekers Can Use Job Titles

Job seekers should never rely on suppositions regarding the actual nature of a role based on title alone. Networking and research are the primary ways to uncover the real job description that underlies every official title. For example, a “director” or “manager” might not actually direct or manage much of anything. It is incumbent on the astute job seeker to ask good questions to thoroughly understand the future reality.

That’s also why it’s important to emphasize actual accomplishments on resumes rather than rely on the title alone to do the work. Recruiters and hiring managers may likewise be confused by titles and may not realize that as an operations supervisor you were truly directing all activities at the company or just keeping one piece of software current, for example.

Since keyword searching is used by many applicant tracking systems, job seekers can use phrases in their resumes and cover letters that name drop other titles to increase the chance of being flagged. For example: “Served as a financial analyst at the level of financial associate … ” This applicant was a financial analyst by title and is asserting that he or she operated at one level higher.

[READ: Why Is It Taking So Long to Hear Back After an Interview?]

Does a Job Title Determine Your Career Path?

Every employee and job seeker should pay keen attention to his or her personal brand. A job title is only one element of someone’s personal brand. A person whose title reads “logistics manager” might really be the one who knows more about customs duties and tariffs than anyone else at the company. That phrase would be awkward on a business card, but it is a more accurate reflection of that person’s true value and contribution.

An optimist will maintain that if one focuses on achievement and personal brand building, the titles that match will follow. A cynic, however, will emphasize that while true, it is also important to assert and negotiate for title recognition in a similar manner than one might with compensation.

Promotion With New Job Title But No Pay Raise

During the course of a professional career, it is common to experience a promotion that includes an increase in title but not in compensation. Sometimes this is because the supervisor has a desire to recognize performance but lacks the budget to increase salary. While compensation negotiation is another topic in itself, one should consider the true value of showing title progression versus the employee’s market value. Especially early in a career, the illustration of advancement may even be more valuable than a small bump in cash compensation.

[READ: How to Professionally Handle an Uncomfortable Situation in the Workplace.]

Accepting a Job Offer With a Lower Title

The flipside of the title promotion without compensation is the question of whether a job seeker should ever accept a diminution of title. Should, for example, a vice president accept a director title while changing companies or departments? Again, no generic answer will apply in all circumstances. Older workers might consider whether their perceived “over qualification” might be holding them back from opportunity. Openness to the “lower” title might give the employer confidence regarding a candidate’s fit. On the other hand, one will usually experience better career progress by consistently seeking more responsibility, which typically includes a higher title.

Job titles are useful tools to tell your career story. It is up to the job seeker to learn to tell his or her career narrative and personal brand in a way that informs the hiring manager of job qualification and fit. Titles are not destiny. Rather, they are terms and labels that can serve as shorthand to articulating value when weaved into someone’s career story.

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What Is a Job Title? originally appeared on usnews.com

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