Are Job Titles Participation Trophies for Grown Ups?

I’m not a big fan of generalizing generations and playing into a faux “millennial” industrial complex, making money convincing everyone that we need to reinvent the world because the millennials have arrived. In fact this member of “Generation Jones” is the one who sets up the tech in our house, knows how the network operates, gets the printer to work and explains how Google+ works to his 20-something kids.

But one thing I did notice as we raised our two millennial darlings is they did get trophies for everything: showing up, not showing up, most improved, least likely to get on base, most likely to foul out–you name it–they got a trophy for it. Looking back, I wish I had long gone in on wood bases and fake metal sports figurines. I’d be retired now.

The other day I was cleaning my kids’ rooms (they are in college now–time for the man cave), and as I packed away the 1,617 trophies my kids had “earned” over their ignominious youth sports careers I started thinking about all the Vice Presidents of Social Media and Digital Interpretive Dance and the Managing Directors of Parking and Bush Management at many of the companies I’ve called on in my career. In fact, don’t be surprised if the person who writes your name on the blue-bordered sticky “My Name is: ______” visitor badge is probably the Vice President of Company Egress Security.

Titles are Trophies

I’m thinking that with the pressure on profit and the need to increase engagement, the idea of “everyone gets a VP title” is simply one way companies have reacted to retention and turnover. Give the person a title they’d be happy to put on LinkedIn and you don’t have to worry about that extra 10% in their paycheck.

Hook them up with free parking and keep them with the VP title.

However, one thing that concerns me is that once everyone is a Vice President–are there any real Vice Presidents? When VP titles meant something, you could hire someone with a VP title and be comfortable they knew how a P&L worked and they’d probably hired, fired and coached employees. VPs in my day understood strategy and tactics and had a pretty commanding knowledge of an industry. I don’t find that too much today. Now, when I look at all the VPs in the LinkedIn stream I wonder if, in reality, they have simply “manager” level experience and a millennial appeasing title?

And if this is in fact true–that titles have gotten inflated to keep people happy–do we have to now hire “CEOs” to fulfill the roles of Director or Vice President? Because we know everyone is CEO of their own career right?

I think from a retention standpoint maybe we shouldn’t hand out titles like beads at Mardi Gras. Maybe the strategy is to keep titles representative of the real work being done so the employee isn’t looking to cash in on the title boon and go apply for a new position where the pay matches the pomp.

What say you–has the trophy inflation of millennial sports invaded the boardroom?

Are titles pretty much irrelevant today?

FOT Background Check

Paul Hebert
Paul Hebert is the Senior Director of Solutions Architecture at Creative Group Inc and a writer, speaker and consultant. Paul focuses on influencing behaviors and driving business results through employees, channel partners and consumers. Over the course of his career, Paul has worked closely with clients to design influence, marketing, motivation, incentive, loyalty, recognition and reward programs to increase effectiveness and reduce costs. Paul is a recognized authority on incentives and performance motivation. Want to know what’s going to motivate your people to perform at their best and impact the bottom line? Want to know whether your service award program really means anything at all? Curious what psychological principles drive sales behavior? Paul’s your guy… unless you fervently bow down to Maslow. Check out his personal blog at "What Is Paul Thinking?" when you're tired of his FOT rants.


  1. Chad says:

    These titles are left over from the bygone era of top-down bureaucracy. If we’re moving to flatter, team-based and skill-based organizations, maybe we should earn badges instead of titles.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      I think a modified version of that idea is spot on – I’d love to see some indicators in my company’s “phone book” that shows what skills they may have to help me and the company. If they are policed a bit (so they don’t end up like LinkedIin endorsements) they could be hugely valuable. If we make them too much like the cartoon badges most “gamified” systems use they are no better than the inflated titles we’re using now. IMO.

      Can I get a plus 1 up in here for that!

  2. Meg Temple (@MegTemple) says:

    I agree on the generation naming/glomming-everyone-together-under-one-set-of-characteristics. I have found very little truth to it. It always feels like the grumpy old man complaining about those young whipper snappers. As far as titles go – maybe it’s a generation thing 🙂 but I just don’t care about titles any longer (although I am in the minority.) I have seen people promoted to VP level who have never managed a budget or done any strategic level planning. That may work in their current company, but anyone who recruits them for another VP position will be unpleasantly surprised.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      That is where I come down on it too Meg…

      I’m guessing there are quite a few people who hired “VPs” for a position and were surprise to find out they just didn’t have the chops. Maybe that is one of the causes of the short tenure for many top level positions these days… hmmm….

  3. kathleen brenk says:

    1. As a proud Gen Xer (and VP) – an org can call me whatever they like as long as I have a voice, the ability to influence and an interesting workplace challenge to attack.
    2. That said, who cares what titles orgs use? A director one place is a VP somewhere else and a GM in yet another place. I care about your head, your heart and your guts.
    3. I giggled when I saw your title, Paul. Ironic.

  4. Paul Hebert says:

    Kathleen – thanks for the comments. You may not care about titles but believe me – many, many do. I’ll bet if someone with a title of “Project Manager” applied for a CEO/CFO/CMO/SVP at a company they wouldn’t be given a second look – they’d be bounced before someone got past the title… because titles do matter. Even if that person had done the job they were looking to hire but they didn’t have the title.

    And I’m guessing now that you have the VP title it means less than it did when you didn’t have it (I know – a generalization but one that will play out correctly 8 out of 10 times.)

    And yes… the irony of my own title did not escape me even though I’ve had P&L responsibility in multiple companies, managed over $60 million in business, hired/fired more than my share, and created and ran 2 businesses.

    I’m actually probably a victim of title compression – but like you – I’m “title adjusted” – I don’t really care.

    But both of us are outliers – we are not the fat part of the curve and can’t draw anything from that.

  5. kd says:

    Hey Paul – What I’ve seen is really a division between big and small companies. Big companies protect title inflation and always have to answer to the Sr. Manager down the hall if they start handing out Director or VP titles, which keeps everyone honest.

    Small companies? VP title is served up pretty quickly. As a part owner of a small company, I’m fine with the game, but let’s face it – you have to dig in to understand if someone is truly senior level – factor in employee count support for HR leaders, Revenue generated for Sales and marketing pros, budget responsibility. I always think about it as Sr. level, mid-career and early career. To your point, there’s a lot of mid-career folks in small companies posing as senior level. I’m a CHRO at a small company, but I did 6 years as a VP with a client group of 6,000 employees, so I probably qualify as Sr. Level based on that experience block.

    At least that’s my story. Gimme my trophy already…


    • Paul Hebert says:

      I’ll give you this is more prevelant at smaller companies Kris – but I know a few people at some fairly big companies and they are seeing the same thing happen. What used to be a “marketing coordinator” role is now a “Marketing Product Manager” – in order to get that “manager” word in there. Sometimes it is more on the lower levels than the top levels -but it is there -slowly growing – slowly gaining strength.

      And again – like you say – getting the interview skills in place to ferret out this problem is critical.

  6. Brian says:

    So my “VP of Hawaiian Shirt Day” is no longer worthy? Fine, I’m changing it to “VP of Nickleback Playlist Creation.” #ShowMeTheStockOptions #WannaBeARockStar

  7. Jennifer says:

    Although I agree that title inflation is definitely an issue (not just at the VP level, but Manager and Director as well), I am not sure if I believe it is only a generational thing. Perhaps it started as a “trophy” tactic, but now it is more of a necessity. I think customer facing positions require more inflation for credibility purposes. If I am marketing my company’s product line to a client group as a “National Marketing and Sales Executive” (with the assumed autonomy to make decisions and knowledge to answer complex questions) I am more credible than the Telephone Sales Rep who needs to get their Supervisor on the line to make any exceptions. Same goes for Financial institutions where client trust is necessary for company survival. I believe we seek the titles that we assume will give us a voice and give those around us confidence that we are subject matter experts.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      I understand the logic Jennifer – that’s why banks originally started the whole “VP” thing – but if you know it, and I know it, and the person we’re talking to knows it – who are we really fooling? Only ourselves I think.

      Face it – it makes us feel good but I’m guessing it has less impact than you’d think.

      When everyone is special – no one is.

  8. Shannon says:

    Paul –
    Syndrome may have said it best…..

  9. Steve Levy says:


    Notice how the “Genner” pointed out she was a Genner? cc @kathleen

    I think VistaPrint is a the heart of job title inflation – somehow they jumped into bed with the WorldAtWork folks…

    “Supreme Galactic Commander” is going to be big this year – really.


  10. Steve Levy says:

    oh, and business cards are the new “My kid is an Honor Student” bumper stickers…

    • Paul Hebert says:

      I think books are the new business cards. You’re nobody until you’ve hit LuLu press and listed yourself as an “author.”

  11. TB says:

    Since losing my job due to restructuring, I’m finding that being unemployed makes me a person non grata in social circles, including family. Anything I say is not heard or responded with negative feedback or comments that basically say I don’t know what I’m talking about or, worse, an eye roll.

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