If you’ve ever found yourself sorting through a collection of business cards after a networking event, only to find that most of them have inaccurate job titles, you know how frustrating it can be to try and decipher someone’s actual job responsibilities.
It’s even more frustrating when you’re a recruiter trying to find the best candidate for an open position and have to wade through a sea of underqualified or under-experienced prospects.
Why do people end up with inflated job titles in the first place?
What can you do as a recruiter to ensure you’re seeing through the smoke and finding the right person for the job?
How do employees get inflated job titles?
The reality is that, while there is somewhat of a loose naming convention for job titles across industries, there is much room for interpretation.
Here are a few different reasons why people might have inflated job titles.
Lack of standardization
Not all companies have the same definition for “assistant manager” or “director of operations,” for example. And even within the same company, job titles and levels can vary depending on the department or team. So, when someone switches companies or teams, their new business card might say “manager” even though their old one says “director.”
In the early days of a startup, everyone has to wear many hats. The person responsible for marketing might also be in charge of HR, and the sales team might include customer service. As the company grows and stabilizes, people have a chance to specialize, and their titles may become more accurate.
In a three-person startup, for example, someone will likely be the CEO, another the Chief Technology Officer, and someone else the Chief Finance Officer, even if they are all fresh out of college.
Unclear definition of levels and hierarchy
In some companies, job titles don’t accurately reflect levels within the organization. In other words, there might be several “managers,” but only one is actually in charge of anything. This can create confusion and frustration, especially for employees trying to move up the ladder.
This is more likely to happen in smaller organizations that haven’t established clear guidelines for job titles and levels.
Stepping into vacancies
When a key player in a company leaves unexpectedly, it can create a domino effect of promotions and title changes as people step into the vacated role.
It can also be the case that someone steps into a higher position as a temporary measure until a replacement is found but then ends up holding the position for several months or years without having the capacity or authority that their title suggests.
Title promotion as a negotiation tool
In some companies, job title changes are used as a reward system for employees who go above and beyond.
An employee who has been with the company for five years and is doing the same job they were doing when they started might suddenly be given a new title (and business card) that says “senior manager,” as a way to keep them happy without having to increase their salary.
Some smaller companies might also use inflated titles as a way to attract candidates, again rewarding someone so they can externally boast of a title that is actually beyond their actual scope of work.
The problem with inflated job titles, especially at higher or executive levels, is that they can give people a false sense of authority.
This can lead to all sorts of problems, from micromanagement to imposter syndrome. It can also create tension and conflict within teams.
If the inflated title places the employee in a higher category of benefits packages, it can result in a cost increase for the company and unfair access to executive perks. 
When the employee leaves that company, it becomes a problem for recruiters and hiring managers trying to match candidates to open positions accurately.
Questions to ask when interviewing
As a recruiter, you need to be able to look beyond the title on someone’s business card and assess their actual qualifications for the job.
Here are some tips to apply when interviewing candidates to ensure you avoid falling into the trap of hiring because of inflated job titles.
Look beyond the title
Don’t get hung up on titles, levels, and hierarchy. Instead, focus on the candidate’s experience and actual job responsibilities, as that will give you a better idea of whether the candidate is a good fit for your vacancy. 
Focus on results
Ask the candidate about specific projects they’ve spearheaded and what kind of results they were able to achieve. This will give you a much better idea of their skills and abilities than their job title ever could.
Be clear about the job requirements
It’s essential you have a good understanding of the job requirements before you start interviewing candidates. This way, you can ensure that you’re looking for someone with the right skills and experience, rather than getting caught up in titles.
Find out who the candidate reports to and who reports to them. This will give you a better sense of their actual position within the company and what their day-to-day responsibilities involve.
Ask probing questions
Ask follow-up questions if you’re unsure what someone’s actual responsibilities are. These can include questions about what they enjoy most about their job and what challenges they face on a daily basis, or what a typical day would look like. 
Look at the context
Even the same position with the same responsibilities will be very different in a small company versus a large one.
The CEO might have the ultimate responsibility over everything in a company, but there’s a big difference between being the CEO of a small startup in your friend’s basement and being the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. They might both be involved in strategic decision-making, but the stakes and experience required are wildly different.
Take note of the size of the team they manage, the total budget they control, and the company’s overall structure.
Assess the candidate’s capacity and decision-making skills
You can do this by asking behavioural questions that focus on specific situations and how the candidate coped in that role. You can also ask them about a time they had to make a difficult decision and how they went about it.
The goal here is not to catch the candidate out but to get a better sense of their actual decision-making process and how they cope under pressure.
In general, it’s important not to rely on job titles, as they don’t always reflect the reality of the situation.
By asking the right questions, you can get a better sense of the candidate’s genuine qualifications and whether they’re a good fit for the job.
Of course, the more experience you have in recruiting and the more candidates you see, the easier it becomes to properly assess if candidates are suitable for the level you are hiring.
That’s why outsourcing recruitment to experienced professionals is often the best idea.
Recruitment professionals are the experts at finding the right candidates for your vacancies.
They have all the necessary tools and resources to screen candidates effectively and the experience to assess how accurate a candidate’s resume is.
By being able to quickly screen through candidates and identify those who are most qualified for the job, they can save you a lot of time and energy.
They also have the experience to have developed a nose for potential red flags in a candidate, such as gaps in employment history, a constant switching of industries, or unrealistic job expectations.
Recruitment specialists can be helpful in any stage of the hiring process, from creating a job posting to conducting interviews and negotiating salaries. They can even help you with onboarding to ensure that your new hire hits the ground running.
They can be an asset in any hiring process you undertake. But there are two areas where it is especially critical to count on the experts.
When it comes to recruiting for jobs outside your company’s core area of expertise or competency, it makes it that much harder to judge whether a candidate is truly qualified or what the relevant requirements should be. By outsourcing recruitment, you can tap into the expertise of those who recruit for that specific industry day in and day out.
The same goes for recruiting for senior-level or highly specialized positions. In both cases, the stakes are high, and a bad hire can be extremely costly. Plus, whereas a company HR manager might go through several recruitment processes a year for entry-level positions, they might only undertake one or two senior-level searches in their entire career. It pays to have someone with extensive experience leading these kinds of searches on your side.
When it comes to job titles, don’t believe everything you see on a business card.
Inflated titles are more common than you might think and can often be misleading.
And remember that if you want to ensure that your recruitment process goes smoothly and efficiently every time and that you find the very best candidates for your vacancies, a reliable and experienced recruitment specialist can be a valuable ally.