Most of us care about our job title—not only because it’s something we want to be proud of, but because it’s a literal reflection of our brand and expertise in our field. It’s what appears on our business cards, at the bottom of our emails, in our LinkedIn profile and resume, and even on our nametag at networking events. It’s a surprisingly powerful way to communicate in just a couple words.
But what happens when your title doesn’t accurately depict what your day-to-day responsibilities are? Or, you find yourself doing more work than your title suggests? Is it OK to ask to change it up?
The first thing Emily Disston, Director of People & Culture at BetterCloud, told me when we spoke about this is that asking isn’t a frequent occurrence. She adds:
And it certainly shouldn’t be. The way we think about career progress is that when you first start at a role, you’re onboarding. And so the company is giving more to you—your managers are investing in you, they’re ramping you up—than you’re able to give to them. Then, fast forward a bit and you’re contributing to your role, otherwise phase two. This is where a lot of people who are new to the workforce ask for a promotion. They think they’re ready for a raise or a higher title, but really they’re just doing what they were hired to do. And then there’s phase three—this is where you’re exceeding your role and going above and beyond. This is when you’re ready for a promotion.
This last point, Disston explains, obviously leads to someone being paid less than what their worth, meriting a raise. But what also happens in this third phase is what she calls “title inequity,” meaning your title isn’t accurately reflecting your contributions to the company.
In a perfect world, if an organization is operating properly and HR is keeping tabs on its people, title changes and pay raises would happen automatically when appropriate and people would never have to worry about bringing it up.
Of course, we don’t live in a perfect world—meaning sometimes, you have to do the work and make the ask.
So, what does that look like? Disston says that if you think your title is inaccurate, it’s definitely OK—if not important—to bring it up to your boss (or, if you’re more comfortable, HR).
“I would rather someone ask than leave, or become poisoned because they’re jaded by the whole thing,” says Disston.
Bringing this up also helps point out gaps between your role and the expectations for that role: “If someone is asking for a title change, it’s either because there’s a misalignment between the manager and employee and the employee doesn’t understand their current job, or the manager has forgotten to give them a title change,” she says.
You may be thinking, Great! Let’s get this convo started, but Disston emphasizes coming prepared before claiming your right to a different title:
If you don’t have a valid argument—if you haven’t thoughtfully asked yourself why you deserve it—and you just ask because you look at someone else on your team and you think you’re contributing the same as them but that’s the only data point you have, you’re going to put yourself out there as someone who’s title-greedy or focused on superficial things.
Plus, remember that this may need to go through someone higher up (say, the VP or C-Suite person on your team), meaning you better have cause for looping all these people in.
So, what does a valid argument include? Well, for starters, I’d suggest finding job listings from similar organizations with the title you’re going after. Then, make a list of all the qualifications they list for those, and line them up with your current responsibilities. (Hint: There should be a lot of overlap and they should be as specific as possible.)
In addition, you also need to consider the way your company is structured and the timing of your ask—a startup or smaller company may be more flexible in terms of talking about this anytime, while a large corporation may not even consider it until the next review cycle. Finally, it’s important to remember that compensation and title are, for the most part, mutually exclusive. This means that not every raise merits a title change, just as not every title change merits a raise.
But if you come to the table with tangible evidence that you’re not only performing up to standard but over-performing in what’s required of you, Disston believes it can absolutely be a productive conversation: “Even if they’re not ready for one, it could lead to a deeper conversation with their manager or HR about how the person can accelerate their progress” and put themselves in the running for a new title down the road.
And then, when you’re ready, send this email:
Hi [Name of Your Boss/HR Rep],
As you know, I’ve been at [Company] for [number of years] and I’m starting to think about my career trajectory and growth. I’m excited about all the opportunities I’ve been given, and upon looking at how much my responsibilities have changed, I’d like to sit down with you to discuss if it would be possible to change my title.
Is there a time that works best for you to meet within the next couple weeks?
With all this said, it’s also crucial to remember that your title isn’t everything. If your boss continues to challenge you by giving you new projects or new responsibilities and pay you accordingly, you’re probably doing alright—and I guarantee if you’re doing good work and being recognized for it, people will respect your expertise despite what your resume says. As they say, actions ultimately speak louder than words.