The director of first impressions will see you now
When you enter an unfamiliar office for a meeting with someone who works there, you will almost certainly approach a person sitting behind a large desk. You might think you are about to speak to a receptionist. But in some buildings, you will be dealing with someone far grander: a lobby ambassador.
If that feels absurd, take a deep breath. Plenty of companies now employ a “director of first impressions”, a job whose responsibilities include greeting all visitors at the front desk, almost as if you were meeting a receptionist. At Hudson Yards, a development in midtown Manhattan, advertisements tell candidates for one role that they are expected to “curate experiences” for visitors if they have questions. You might think you are asking someone where the toilet is; in fact, you are having an experience with a brand ambassador.
Title inflation happens for reasons that are perfectly understandable. When money is tight, a bump in title is a way of recognising someone’s efforts cheaply. A more prestigious-sounding role is not just a nice bauble: it may add to someone’s appeal in the wider job market. When a job lacks cachet, renaming it can lessen stigma and signal that an employer takes the position seriously. And when a role is outward-facing, a weightier title might make some clients more willing to take a meeting.
But title inflation also causes trouble. The results can be laughable. “Sanitation technicians” have to be passionate about cleaning; “sandwich artists” do not have to be passionate about art. And once inflation takes hold, it can be hard to suppress. If the lobby ambassador is on holiday, you will soon be seen by the lobby chargé d’affaires. Instead of undertakers, directors of last impressions.
The currency of an inflated title quickly loses value. A senior vice-president is someone in middle management; an assistant vice-president is three years out of university; an associate vice-president has just mastered the alphabet. More and more words need to be added to connote seniority. “Senior executive vice-president” is a title which would not exist if not for the massed ranks of vice-presidents jostling below. Absurdities have to be conjured up to stand out from the crowd – chief evangelist, director of storytelling, chief innovability officer.
There are bigger costs than comedy and confusion. Handing a heftier title to one person can easily cause resentment among others on a team. And inflated titles can have adverse effects on hiring processes. An analysis of tech recruitment in America by Datapeople, a software firm, found that the proportion of women in applicant pools drops as jobs become more senior. Puffed-up titles may put good candidates off.
Title inflation is most associated with specific jobs. But there exists a less-remarked type of naming inflation, which seeks to rebrand entire categories of people. There is, for example, a perfectly good term for buyers of things: “customers”. But lots of companies are not satisfied with taking people’s cash. They want to have a meaningful relationship.
Keen to avoid sounding too transactional, some businesses use the inflated title of “guests” instead. But language that might make sense at a Disney resort sounds very odd if you are in a queue for the checkout at Target; people are trying to leave as efficiently as possible, not settling in for the time of their lives. “Member” is another bogus word. No one is wondering whether their application to pay Amazon an annual fee for free shipping is going to be turned down.
The worst offences in this category are the labels that employers give to their staff. Calling people “colleagues” or “team members” instead of “staff” or “employees” is a common tactic. People who work in Walmart stores are known as “associates”. Baristas at Starbucks are called “partners” because, the firm’s website explains, “We are all partners in shared success.” Tech firms are wedded to cutesy names for their employees. When Facebook rebranded itself as Meta, it announced that its workers would henceforth be known as “Metamates”.
The intent behind this kind of language is again clear: to create a sense of shared endeavour and to disguise the cold reality of corporate hierarchies. But this façade is much easier to maintain when things are going well. Meta is now firing more than 11,000 of its mates, which seems a tad unfriendly. Starbucks doesn’t want its partners to form a union with anyone but itself. A bit of title inflation is excusable. But just like the real thing, it can easily get out of control.