New Research Reveals How Candidates Feel About Weird Job Titles 

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Aug 11, 2020
This article is part of a series called Surveys.

A creative job title can tell a lot about a position or organization, but it might not be quite what’s intended.

Take the late “Supreme Leader” of North Korea, Kim Jong Il. He’s had at least 55 recognized titles for his role, from the fairly standard “General” to the bold and boastful “Great Sun of Life” and “World Leader of the 21st Century.” Such a persistent claim to authority suggests something about the priorities of his leadership, but it doesn’t command admiration on the global political stage.

Some “‘innovative” job titles are really just thinly-disguised attempts to make regular jobs sound powerful and exciting. As the Plain English Foundation points out, this is not such a strange phenomenon. There have been ads for destination counselors (travel agents), knowledge navigators (teachers), vision clearance engineers (window cleaners), and directors of first impressions (receptionists). We’ve also seen ninjas, gurus, geeks, trailblazers, kahunas, rockstars, and heroes. 

The most extravagant title, according to the Foundation? “His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, CBE, Lord of all the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.” Also known as the President of Uganda.

The larger point is that language is powerful, and the job titles and descriptions you use in your recruitment campaigns can have a big impact on how people perceive your company and can influence who might — and might not be — attracted to the job.

Recently, gathered data on the most commonly used weird keywords used in job titles and descriptions, and surveyed 1,000 Americans to find out how recruitment buzzwords affected their perception of — and willingness to apply for — such jobs. 

What’s behind the trend of hyper-inflated job titles such as “product evangelist’ and “sales jedi’? Do they really make a job stand out, or do they undermine the image of the position, and the company advertising it?

Creative ≠ Effective

With “knights” and “ninjas,” some recruiters seemingly require people to live out a historical fantasy to get the job done. Such job titles are painfully ridiculous, but there is some rationale behind this sort of creative license. It appeals to the very natural and understandable desire for work to feel meaningful and valued. It frames mundane-sounding jobs as more appealing. Nevermind that job-title inflation is a much cheaper alternative to a pay rise.

The trend for whacky job titles correlates with the growth of the tech industry. An early — and well-known — example of this is the Apple Genius Bar, where you obviously don’t have actually have to be a genius to offer technical support, 

In fact, tech is the no. 1 field for fantastical job titles and job descriptions, having the highest number of mentions for 8 out of 15 key recruitment buzzwords, including “genius,” “evangelist,” and “guru.” These terms certainly stand out, but do they really add appeal?

Words Without Meaning

A fresh and important-sounding job title can be a flattering pat on the back, but reimagining a role through title alone doesn’t carry real meaning. 

While it may seem convenient to use creative buzzwords to sugarcoat the less-exciting and sometimes unpleasant reality of some jobs, this can also misfire when it comes to communicating the nature of roles, as well as the skills needed for them.

Some unusual terms used in job adverts are easier to decipher than others, of course. It generally makes sense that “storyteller” skills would be useful in media and marketing, for example, but perhaps less so in hospitality. Except, hospitality had the third highest number of uses of the term!

Additionally, it might not be too surprising that “heroic” job titles and descriptions target healthcare workers. However, when healthcare job ads repeatedly ask for “heroes” and “superheroes,” they may be perpetuating unreasonable expectations of people in caring professions. Speaking of healthcare, 73% of the ads with “warrior” in a job title are in healthcare. There were no “warrior” jobs, though, in the military (which clearly knows better.)

And while terms such as “evangelist” and “guru” may sound impressive, they don’t communicate much about a job. An evangelist is a religious preacher, and a guru is a spiritual teacher, so these terms could indicate a passionate affiliation or a commitment to spreading a message, but what does a “technical evangelist” actually do? 

It’s a counterintuitive move for recruiters to advertise imaginative job titles because candidates don’t typically type “champion” and “warrior” into search fields. Contrary to making a role sound more desirable, this just adds confusion about the nature of the job and the expectations of the role.

Detriment to Diversity

Advertising for a “sales jedi” may communicate a sense of persuasive powers, but it also makes the role, the recruiter, and the company subject to ridicule. Many candidates also don’t like this type of bizarre title because it could have a detrimental effect on CVs. It risks giving a poor and unclear impression of the role when it comes to finding future work.

In fact, a significant majority of people said they would be deterred from applying to jobs advertised using the terms “hacker,” “evangelist,” “guru,” and “genius.” And roughly two-third of job-seekers are put of by “champion.”

There’s also the serious matter of unconscious bias, which culturally-loaded terms for job titles and descriptions can perpetuate. Many of these buzzwords are coded to appeal to young white men, and may alienate potential women, minorities, and older candidates. Sure enough, women were 38% less likely than men to apply for “guru” jobs and 30% less likely to go for “genius” and “champion” roles.

That said, research did show that high-school dropouts were more likely to apply for jobs with weird titles. But employers shouldn’t assume that a zany title is an effective means to attract such candidates. Given that the role will not likely seem clear as a result of the title, there’s a good chance of mismatch between candidates and jobs.

So to reiterate, language has great power. At best, it can inspire people to strive for new opportunities. But using flashy and unnecessary words to describe jobs can easily backfire. The practice can confuse and mislead, as well as exclude and deter people from applying. Clarity is a far more valuable recruitment tool.

This article is part of a series called Surveys.
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