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The Banker: I strongly believe that Asian job title inflation is a very bad thing – we can’t all be “leaders” and “senior managers”

Inflation is a key theme in today’s economic environment and it seems not even job titles have escaped its influence. Titles are getting longer and grander – every second person I meet in financial services is either some sort of chief, specialist or consultant. At the very least they have a seniority- or management-implying prefix, such as senior, leader or head, tagged onto their title.

For obvious reasons a ‘documentation specialist’ sounds much more impressive than an ‘administration clerk’, right? But has this all gone too far? Is it just a cheap way for employers to attract and/or retain employees? Have titles completely lost focus and do they now only remotely reflect the role?

In a previous life in another industry, titles were a respected and precious commodity. For example, a manager was typically a well-rounded individual with comprehensive experience in a particular field. Nowadays, sometimes it feels like employers compete to have the most impressive sounding titles.

The internet abounds with humorous anecdotes: there’s the ‘hydro-refrigeration distribution specialist’ (ice packer and seller), and ‘sanitation consultant’ (cleaner). In banking, I have seen titles that are misleading at best: ‘regional managers’ whose portfolio only covers a single country; ‘team managers’ who don’t actually have teams nor manage; and ‘senior managers’ who still report to ‘managers’.

A cheap and nasty trick

In a tight job market, employers use titles as a cheap and simple way to try to attract or retain staff. Whether it effectively tackles the short-term talent crunch is open to debate, but I’m convinced it is generally not a good long-term strategy because it increases employees’ external marketability without providing the improvements in the role or package that they wants

In other words, the reasons for internal staff dissatisfaction have not been addressed but their up-tiered titles now make them seem more attractive to rival banks.

Title inflation can make the initial stages of job searches a hit-and-miss affair. With job titles and even descriptions sometimes only vaguely representative, it’s hard to know whether a position is really what we think it is, both in terms of role and level. Maybe employers do this deliberately in the hope of attracting more applicants. Perhaps it’s a Catch 22 situation – the firm next door does it, so to be competitive we do it too, thus perpetuating the cycle.

Whatever the reasons, it’s happening now in Asia. As a banker with a long way until retirement, the question in my mind (for which I don’t yet have an answer) is this: how do I manage title inflation and still survive and thrive?

Are you a financial services professional in Singapore, Hong Kong or China? Would you like to write an anonymous column like The Banker, expressing your opinions on recruitment and career issues? Email us on apac.editor @efinancialcareers.com with details of your job and what you’d like to write about.

Comments (15)

  1. I completely agree if I assess the profiles of the technology group of my company. AVP title here is same as that of a senior developer role. Some banks have title like Associate Director which may translate to being yet again a senior developer.

  2. the title inflation culture really started with the American banks (Lehman, Bear Stearns, Credit Suisse in particular) where everyone is a Director and Managing Director.

    You find the local banks more astute in alloting titles, which they screen thoroughly before doing so. I have heard of multiple stories of how people are made director at SCB, RBS, Barclays…. when their experience is really max, VP, or lower in some cases.

  3. I don’t want to sound like I am bragging, but my boss pulled me aside yesterday and said that if I work really hard, I can become MacDonalds Team Leader in 2 or 3 years time

  4. Another example is UBS. A director title at UBS is no more than a VP title in a US bank.

  5. hmmm…. Interesting….!!

  6. Banks are like that only. Jobs are simple, qualifications are high.. How to pacify? I remember a credit suisse team, they hired 5 developers ..4 of them really strong programmers but one guy a weaker fellow, not so reliable. Interestingly he was made manager of other 4. Do we really need managers ? Generally they are irritating..

  7. This concept of title inflation is certainly not confined to Asia. The home of title inflation is actually the US as it all started with the US banks and especially with Bear Stearns dishing out Senior Managing Director titles; what on earth is a Senior MD, for goodness’ sake?

    What is more irksome and disturbing now is the trend of any old tom, dick and harry being named a head of something even though he or she may just be a heading up himself and his secretary.

    Having said that, clients do take note at people’s titles on their business cards and in some Asian countries it is important to have those maketing (external) titles to be taken seriously with corporate clients.

  8. It was said that if you joined certain US IBs’ as anything other than Assoc and stayed for 5 years you would automatically be given an MD title and certainly some employers are tougher than others when handing out titles because they are actually linked to Seniority. Every firm is different and so you get strange situations.

    I have seen an MD based in Asia move to Europe as a VP and be happy to get that position.

    I have also seen Dir’s who report to a VP who in turn report to an MD who himself reports to a VP post GFC.

    If there is a client facing element to a role then it is commonly held and makes sense in Asia that you must have a strong marketing title on your business card to ‘get you through the door’ though firms that practice this usually have an internal ranking system that impacts payscale, benefits and seniority more than what it says on the card.

    I also have yet to meet an employer who will not drill down on what someone does, their skill set + their achievements in order to make a call when hiring so I doubt title inflation has much of an impact where it counts. If it helps to retain people and only costs you a box of business cards I can see the benefit

  9. Assistant Vice President @Credit Suisse = Associate Director @UBS

  10. Banks are the worse. Which President are the AVPs, SVPs and VPs “vice” or second in command to? It’s ridiculous. Most companies have 1 President and his direct reports are VPs responsible for a unit or function of the comany. It always makes me laugh when my company hires xVPs from banks and we print ‘executive’ on their biz cards because the chap they report to is “only” a manager.

  11. Funny. interesting!!!

  12. Not only is the title status misrepresented (I have met GM’s in Hong Kong who are first line managers with a span of control being 3) but the length of the title when meeting in a business setting tends to put to sleep. Its becomes funny when these people cannot make even a minor business decision

  13. I so agree with the article. Everyone in the banking industry wants to be a manager and no one wants to be a worker! No wonder we see so many banks failing. And if one has experienced the behaviour of so called “senior managers”, you can be sure that they are a bunch of insecure and incompetent people.

    Unhappy banker Reply
  14. Anyone ever looked at this within the recruitment firms out there!? Every “recruiter” has an inflated title; Director, Associate Director, VP, Managing Consultant, Team Manager/Lead, Partner, Managing Partner… and the best one yet “Talent Acquisition Specialist / Manager” . The recruitment firms become more and more creative with what they label their consultants of 2+ years both on the name card and on linkedin! It makes me laugh… I even dealt with one recruiter who’s email address is CEO@***.com talk about ego!

    I’m a Banker Reply
  15. let’s not forget about the simple title but comes with impossible 30 bullet points and more JDs.
    in Asia, especially Singapore, there has been a trend that if your title is ‘finance manager’, you are actually in charge or finance-HR-payroll-admin-tax-treasury-legal-etc etc

    this is another trick of employers to trick employees (less pay, 1 person running the whole show).

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