Imagine that you have interviewed for a position at a wonderful non-profit organization. The hiring manager has described the organization’s goals and activities, the department’s needs and plans, and has told you about the job that you would fill if you receive the offer.

It sounds perfect: you resonate with the vision, you like the people, and you know you have the skills to do the job.

The feeling appears to be mutual, and when they invite you back for a second interview, they make you a formal offer. The salary and benefits are fine, and you are about to sign on the dotted line when you realize what you never asked.

“What is the job title?”

“Oh, we don’t believe in titles here. Everyone does their bit, gives their all for the cause.”

Should this kind of response stop you in your tracks?

On first consideration, this response may sound reasonable, even commendable, especially in the non profit arena. Generally speaking, people involved in non profit work are there to make a difference in the world, and are less concerned with their own egos or personal advancement. Who wouldn’t be proud to belong to a group of committed individuals who “don’t believe in titles”?

Unfortunately, there is much more to it.

Role confusion

The biggest problem with a lack of titles is that it smacks of a lack of organizational clarity. Of course, particularly in small organizations, there is sometimes a need for everyone to pitch in, and everyone is expected to be willing to do things that are beyond their professional experience or training in a pinch.

But if there is no job delineation at all, employees will find themselves confused about what they are expected to accomplish, and what others can be expected to do. This state of affairs can lead to internal tensions and mutual blame when deadlines are not met or organizational goals are not reached. Even when successes occur, they are hard to duplicate if expectations remain unclear.

Suspicious motives

Sometimes the reasons that an employer shies away from granting a new employee a clear title can be problematic. Perhaps the employer does not want to be held to industry standard salaries and avoids the possibility of comparison with similar positions in other organizations by leaving the title blank.

Perhaps the employer wants the employee to be obligated by contract to do anything the employer asks, including more menial tasks that would not be appropriate for a senior or professional title.  And perhaps the employer wishes to avoid the whole issue of professional advancement: if you don’t know your current title, how can you ask for a promotion to a more senior role?

The gift of a personal narrative

We all have a personal narrative, a way we picture ourselves and present our lives to ourselves and to others.  When that narrative is somehow knocked out of whack, we find ourselves reeling.

People whose personal narrative is very narrowly defined (say, primarily by their job and title) will be extremely shaken up if they find themselves unemployed, and not only because of the financial insecurity.  A person whose narrative centers on his/her role as a parent may face an identity crises when the last child moves out.

Clearly, the more broadly we define our identity – the more elements of ourselves we are able to weave into our personal narrative – the more confidently we will be able to weather the crises of life with our sense of self intact.

For most people, a job title is an essential piece of the personal narrative puzzle. It communicates to ourselves and to our surroundings much about our skills, our beliefs, and the value of our professional contribution. “I am a doctor” communicates much more than those four words. In it we hear, “I am committed to saving life; I am intelligent and learned; I am interested in scientific developments.”

Beyond the pitfalls of organizational confusion, professional stagnation and poor communication, a  professional setting that will not grant its members titles potentially robs them of a critical and precious gift: the internal stability that comes from a broad personal narrative.

Should you sign?

If your potential employer does not “believe in titles”, don’t sign just yet. I would even recommend making it clear that a defined title and delineated professional area of responsibility are prerequisites for your acceptance of the position.

If the organization cannot accept these requirements, I’d say that is a clear sign that you will be happier elsewhere.  If they do accede to your request, you will have taken a step that will increase professional health not only for you, but for the entire organization.