If there’s one career topic that remains particularly contentious, particularly when it comes to recruiting and HR practitioners, it’s about the relative importance we place on job titles – and whether or not they’re even necessary to begin with.

The debate, discussion and discourse around job titles continues to rage on – with little to no consensus on what should be a fairly simple and straightforward subject. On the one hand, job titles are regarded by many recruiters as more or less a necessary evil. After all, the fundamental currency of recruitment advertising, of course, is the job description.

Ensuring that potential candidates are able to find and apply for your job, or that passive talent will consider an opportunity, rests largely on having a title that matches what candidates are searching for.

While it’s tempting to get overly cutesy or creative with job titles, the key to attracting the right candidates rests heavily on using the right job titles.

The easiest way to get people to look at your opportunity is to make it clear what you’re looking for in the first place.

Of course, sometimes, those job titles can be overly limiting, particularly if you’re looking for a position that’s not necessarily aligned with any kind of traditional title, or the scope of the role is beyond what someone with that job title would normally be tasked with.

In many ways, job titles can actually keep top talent from finding or applying to a position that would otherwise be perfect for them. This is why job titles have long represented one of talent acquisition’s most endemic – and enduring – Catch 22s.

The reason that this argument remains so persistent and pervasive is that both sides have valid arguments for their side of the job title debate, and the pros and cons of both sides seem fairly balanced. Before you make a decision on whether or not abandoning or radically redefining your approach to job titles is the right approach for your business and bottom line.

Here are some of the benefits – and drawbacks – of job titles so that you can make an informed decision on whether or not such a move is going to be worth the return on your recruiting investment today – or provide the competitive advantage your talent team needs to attract, engage and convert the top talent of tomorrow.

The Beginning: Why Job Titles Make Sense.

It’s probable that most active applicants or passive candidates who would be interested in your job description – or minimally qualified for your requisition – have some sort of title that’s either similar or (better yet) identical to the one you’re ostensibly hiring for.

By using a job title that fits standard conventions and job seeker expectations, candidates have an easy way to know what you’re looking for, both in terms of career level and role related responsibilities.

Let’s use having to hire a “marketing associate” as an example to illustrate this point. Now, in general terms, most of the people who have either worked or would be qualified for a Marketing Associate role know that this position in fact involves few strategic marketing decisions, but a lot of administrative and support work with a few marketing type responsibilities tossed in with the mostly menial workload.

If this sort of entry level, highly tactical type of position describes what your employer is in fact hiring for, then it only makes sense to leverage a job title that matches the most people meeting that description. You’ll quickly narrow down your candidate flow to more qualified, more highly targeted candidates by using standard job titles rather than something that’s “outside of the box,” and therefore, outside the scope of most job seeker searches.

If a candidate can self-identify quickly with the job title you’re posting and know from the title alone whether or not they’re probably qualified (or would even be interested), instead of leaving them wondering what the heck it is, exactly, you’re looking for with your “creative” or “non traditional” job title.

Eliminating confusing job titles goes a long way in eliminating the guesswork both candidates face when searching for jobs, and that recruiters have to deal with while screening, slating and submitting candidates.

Another, more obvious reason to use standard job titles is that by keeping your job titles straightforward and simple, you not only make positions more attractive to external talent, but actually keep your internal talent happy, too. Employees are often highly motivated by titles, and a common touchstone in internal mobility, career mapping or succession planning, among myriad other talent management functions.

For example, that Marketing Associate you’re hiring today may be just as motivated by the opportunity to move up to a Marketing Manager tomorrow. The defined delineation of job titles, simply straightforward org charts or career hierarchy and consistent, clear career paths sends an implicit message that you value your workers, and an explicit message to candidates that you’re an employer of choice worth choosing.

Further, employees who are incentivized by internal mobility initiatives and feel like job titles are something that they have to earn, rather than are simply given to them as another part of another job, are much more likely to work harder and assume much more responsibility if they see their job as a means to an end, rather than just another dead end job. There are few inducements more enticing for most employees than the prospect of promotion, and the title change that this internal advancement signifies.

Similarly, as far as retention goes, there are few incentives more powerful for keeping existing employees around than the prospect of being able to move up in your organization instead of having to move out to take the next step when it comes to advancing their careers.

Which, at the end of the day, is pretty much the thing that both internal and external talent value the most when it comes to making it work in the world of work today.

Do Job Titles Still Make Sense for Recruiting and Hiring?

The flip side to this argument, of course, is that actual job responsibilities, tasks and outcomes can almost never be completely anticipated by the restrictive language of job descriptions.

Inevitably, every skilled or professional role will inevitably start to bleed outside the normal scope or recurring responsibilities traditionally associated with the carefully formed borders of their respective job titles.

Let’s go back to our example of a marketing associate. Let’s say that sure, your Marketing Associate opening may require most of the traditional duties associated with this title, but much of the job also involves basic public relations, employee communications or some sort of customer or client support work.

That’s actually a far more interesting role than the one to which most people with that title are traditionally relegated, but by using a standard title, the role is both less marketable and more ambiguous when it comes to describing both the actual job and the kind of candidate required to fill it.

If a job title doesn’t align with market norms and candidate expectations, if it’s either misleading or misrepresenting the kind of work the role really requires, than you’re doing both yourself and your candidates a disservice. Given the dynamic and evolving nature of most roles, the argument can be made, it doesn’t make sense to even use a job title in the first place. There is some merit to this argument. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, trying to define it is an absolutely futile exercise, ultimately.

Another drawback of job titles is that their very existence is predicated on the existence of an entrenched organizational or interpersonal hierarchy within that company’s culture. This runs contrary to the current approach many employers have adopted when it comes to creating a cohesive company culture. These culture initiatives are increasingly adopting practices such as flattened org charts, emphasis collaboration, and increased employee autonomy, decision making authority and professional flexibility.

Removing titles can often remove many of the implicit and explicit barriers breaking down communications, adding unnecessary bureaucracy and creating unnecessary red tape within any organization. By eliminating titles, you’re inherently eliminating one of the most obvious signifiers that your organization values process, policy and politics instead of its people.

This is one message no organization wants to send to employees, and removing job titles can send a powerful message of workplace meritocracy and employee equality.

Without job titles, employees can be judged on what they do, not what they’re called – and that often leads to more engaged, satisfied and productive workers than those restricted by the confines of a restrictive job title and rigid reporting structure.

What Would Happen In A World Without Job Titles?

Beyond these obvious reasons why job titles have some pretty serious drawbacks, there’s the simple fact that when it comes to talent attraction, even the world’s most compelling or best written job description can’t overcome a poorly written, amorphous or ambiguous job title.

If you want job seekers to get to the good stuff, you’ve got to make sure that the title’s compelling enough to make them click through to the actual posting. A terrible title makes conversion infinitely harder – something that’s inevitably reflected in recruiting results.

Also, if those titles aren’t market standard or ones that are easily recognized by qualified talent, then you’re not only turning off candidates – you’re ensuring that those few applicants who you do receive will be largely unqualified. If your job description doesn’t make it clear what you’re looking for, you’re going to attract mostly candidates who don’t know what the heck it is that they want, either. And that’s a waste of everyone’s time, really.

Poorly-written job titles can completely bunk up a good job description. If there’s not a standard title for the role you’re hiring for, your vague job title might be more of a turnoff, sending qualified talent in the other direction.

OK, maybe your culture really likes the idea of having unconventional job titles like, “Head of Idea Generation” or “Director of Awesome” or any of the similarly specious, silly titles that seem to be proliferating pretty much everywhere these days. That’s OK; it obviously says a lot about your culture and its relative values, competitive differentiators and unique approach to talent.

These unconventional conventions can make a company stand out and defy expectations, which attracts the type of candidates who are less likely to be attracted to the cookie-cutter, cut and paste job descriptions and generic titles most other employers embrace.

That could be a blessing and a curse, because sometimes, you just want someone to do a job, instead of trying to constantly redefine or rethink what it is that job entails. Sometimes, you want doers, not dreamers. Job titles are a pretty clear differentiator between these two common candidate camps. So if you’re going to choose to abandon job titles, make sure you know whether you’re looking for those who can work with the system and those who work to change it.

Top talent often shares a simple philosophy: it’s their job to define a job, rather than have a job define them – which starts, of course, with the job description itself (or lack thereof).

Making Job Titles Make Sense for Recruiting and Hiring.

So, which side is right? Do we need job descriptions or are they a required part of effective recruiting and efficient hiring? At the end of the day, there are no absolutes, like so much else in talent acquisition today.

Instead, it really comes down to a question of culture: what sort of workplace are you trying to create for your workers, what is your mission, your vision and your values, and what’s the best way to communicate these to current employees and prospective candidates alike.

How do you want the market to perceive you? What do you want your employer brand to be? What do you want job seekers to think of when they think of working at your company?

The answers to these critical questions really come down to whether or not you want to conform to convention or defy it. That’s an oversimplification, but a convenient way to categorize how you want to define and market your company culture.

The choice you make should drive not only your approach to job titles and descriptions, but every part of your talent organization, people processes and employee lifecycle. Of course, only you can make the choice that’s right for your business, and neither approach is right for every employer.

If you don’t know yourself, then no employee or candidate can ever know what you really expect from them, either. Job titles are important. But they’re not always necessary. It’s all about what those titles represent, and how they can best represent your career opportunities to the people your business needs not only to survive, but thrive, in the rapidly changing world of work.

Just know that you can’t describe what hasn’t been invented yet, and the best talent on the market can’t be defined by a simple job title.

After all, you can’t have a job description for someone whose job involves doing that which hasn’t yet been described, nor a title for a job that defies convention or categorization.

Which is precisely what most recruiters mean when they talk about “top talent,” those candidates who not only defy job titles, but also, transcend them – which is, when you think about it, kind of the holy grail of hiring (and the whole goal of recruiting, too).

About the Author:

Chrissy Hopkins, PHR  is a Human Resources consultant and writer at Fit Small Business. Her areas of expertise include recruiting, performance management, organizational change, and implementing HR systems.

In addition to writing for Fit Small Business, Christy maintains an HR consulting and recruiting firm that boasts over 30 small business clients across the United States.

Follow Chrissy on Twitter @4PointConsult or connect with her on LinkedIn.

By Christy Hopkins

Christy Hopkins, PHR, is a Human Resources consultant and writer at Fit Small Business. Her areas of expertise include recruiting, performance management, organizational change, and implementing HR systems. In addition to writing for Fit Small Business, Christy maintains an HR consulting and recruiting firm that boasts over 30 small business clients across the U.S. Follow Christy on Twitter @4pointconsult, or connect with her on LinkedIn.