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Title Inflation--Standard Fare in Banking, Hollywood--Is Now in Corporate America

If you ever ask to speak with the president of Pacific Bell, the initial response could be a question: Which one?

That’s because PacBell not only has an executive with the title of president and chief executive, but also a president for public affairs who presides over four regional presidents. And one of the telephone company’s sister businesses, Pacific Bell Mobile Services, has five regional presidents in addition to a president and chief executive.

The platoon of presidents at PacBell reflects a wave of title inflation rippling through corporate America. Today’s executives, like generations of bosses before them, are snaring lofty-sounding titles for themselves and awarding upgraded tags to some of their valued subordinates.

As in years past, the chief aims are to impress potential customers and to placate employees--often without giving them meaningful pay raises.

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Now, however, title inflation is being raised to new heights largely as a result of a fresh burst of big mergers. Experts say that when merger partners want to dodge tough decisions about how to blend their management ranks, they often hand out puffed-up titles to blunt internal tensions and blur distinctions in the new pecking order.

“It’s a crutch,” said William W. Venable, a partner at the New York headquarters of the executive search firm Thorndike Deland Associates. “Titles don’t have as much credence or credibility anymore.”

The surplus of lofty tags goes all the way to the top of some organizations: When Travelers Group and Citicorp announced plans in April for a mammoth merger, they disclosed that the combined organization would have not one but two chief executive officers. Likewise, this month’s merger pact between Chrysler and Daimler-Benz calls for the present leaders of the two companies to serve as co-CEOs for three years.

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Inflated titles have long been standard fare at status-conscious Hollywood studios and in the banking industry, in which vice presidential credentials often are conferred upon even junior branch managers.

“Being called a vice president at a bank might make your customers a little less ornery when they call about a problem on their statement,” said George Bailey, a management consultant in San Francisco with Watson Wyatt Worldwide.

But title inflation isn’t the only change going on these days with job titles. A more prevalent trend at some companies, particularly those in the computer industry, is the introduction of creative titles inspired by new technologies, including such tags as chief knowledge officer and webmaster.

And in a sort of counter-trend to the wave of title inflation, other businesses are creating job labels that are simpler or more descriptive. The aim typically is to reflect reorganizations that have eliminated layers of middle management, as well as to encourage more teamwork and flexibility in the work force.

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Some management experts fear that title inflation is yet another management fad that will backfire by breeding Dilbert-style skepticism in the workplace.

“Workers know that they’re getting these titles in many cases in lieu of raises. The irony is that hierarchies have been leveled, so it’s not as if they have greater authority,” said Paul Baard, associate professor of communications and management at Fordham University in New York.

Baard added that management titles such as senior vice president, executive vice president and senior executive vice president have spread so widely that “in many cases being a vice president means nothing.”

His favorite example of an inflated title: senior chairman, a designation held by McDonald’s executive Fred L. Turner ever since he stepped down as chairman in 1990.

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Fancy titles are particularly common among salespeople and professionals who market their services to potential clients. For example, Watson Wyatt’s Bailey concedes that he has a “grandiose” title: global director of the human capital group.

“It helps you compete against all of the other consultants with grandiose titles,” Bailey explained, laughing.

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Although the push toward title simplification could eventually take the steam out of the opposing trend of title inflation, no one is predicting that the practice of creating glorified job tags will disappear. Management experts say that as long as people have egos and companies have clients to impress, employers will create fancy job titles.

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Pacific Bell multiplied its storehouse of presidents when it created the four regional president jobs after the telephone company’s parent was bought by SBC Communications Corp. in April 1997. Previously, similar public affairs duties were handled by area vice presidents.

John Britton, a spokesman for Pacific Bell, said the upgraded job title reflects the expansive duties given to the four new regional presidents. “They’re now considered executives at the top tier,” said Britton.

The company’s presidential titles, he said, “are pretty legitimate, when you look at the size and scope of what people are doing. It’s not like an advertising firm, where half the people carry the title of vice president.”

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Times staff writer Stuart Silverstein can be reached by phone at (213) 237-7887 or by e-mail at stuart.silverstein@latimes.com.


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