Feature

Hiring magicians & ninjas


Do quirky job titles help or hurt when it comes to recruitment?

Words by Daniel Jones | Design by Matt Bonnar

Words by Daniel Jones


Design by Matt Bonnar

Full Stack Magician, Accounting Ninja, Innovation Sherpa - the list of weird and wonderful job titles out there seems to be growing by the minute.

These days it’s not just cool tech companies or fledgling start-ups using these funky names to package job roles either. More traditional companies are gravitating toward unorthodox names in a bid to keep their brand persona up to date. In fact, the trend has evolved so much that in recent years job listings specialist Indeed has begun producing an annual report documenting the rise and fall of the most popular titles.

According to the 2018 report, the number of roles including the word ‘ninja’ has rocketed by 140% over the past four years. That surge in popularity saw it overtake the previous year’s winner – ‘rockstar’ – as the top choice for quirky job adverts, with honourable mentions to all the gurus, heroes and wizards that followed.

But behind the novelty, the big question remains: do quirky job titles help at all when it comes to recruiting the best available talent?

The pros and cons

“As companies adjust to new challenges and opportunities, traditional roles are becoming much more digitally-focused,” says Matt Weston, Managing Director of global recruitment firm Robert Half. “We’re seeing an increase in demand for analysts, accountants and digital marketing specialists, as more emphasis is placed on data-driven approaches and objectives.

“Because of this, many organisations now advertise these roles using unconventional job titles, such as ‘guru’ or ‘rockstar’, to stand out from the crowd. This approach also helps give a flavour of the type of workplace culture on offer – which is becoming more important to win over candidates.

“However, while it can have its advantages, hiring managers should be wary of using too much imagination in their job advertisements. Straying too far from the job description can cause confusion about what the role entails – vague titles such as ‘Chief Happiness Officer’ may pique interest, but it provides little information to the candidate about the responsibilities involved or the skillset required.”

That’s not the only risk. Given that the vast majority of people will search for their next career move online, it’s important to make vacancies as relevant and easy to find as possible. To put it another way: if a company posts a wonderfully whacky job advert online, yet nobody types in the key terms needed to find it, is it still as wonderful?

Job listings sites like Monster, Indeed or Reed all rely on accurate information when tailoring their search results to jobseekers. Chances are that uploading your next secretarial vacancy under the title of Director of First Impressions won’t yield the maximum amount, or quality, of responses. It’s a big deal given that 40% of companies believe job titles are a key factor in attracting more candidates (Pearl Meyer, 2018).

How did we get here?

As with many modern influences of workplace culture, the origins can be traced back a few decades to Silicon Valley. It’s tough to pin down a watermark for exactly when it all started, though Apple’s decision to adopt the ‘Genius’ moniker for their specialist in-store staff back in 2001 is perhaps as good as any. These days it’s easy to forget how different this approach was at the time, particularly for a multinational company with a huge consumer brand to protect.

The idea was the brainchild of Ron Johnson, Senior Vice President for Retail at the time. Speaking in a 2011 interview with Harvard Business Review, Johnson recalled the day he talked to Steve Jobs about the idea: “I asked him to imagine a friendly place that dispenses advice and is staffed by the smartest Mac person in town. He would be like a genius to the customer, because he knows so much. In fact, we could call it the ‘Genius Bar.’ Three years later the Genius Bars were so popular that we had to set up a reservation system to manage the demand.”

Once the success of the idea was established, it didn’t take long for other big companies to follow suit. Subway soon started referring to their staff as Sandwich Artists. Taco Bell has Service Champions. BMW liked the Apple model so much that they decided to just go with Genius for their customer service reps – and they’re definitely not the only ones.

The verdict

It’s only natural that smaller companies look to emulate successful corporates in whatever way they can – down to the whacky titles they choose to denote different job functions. They may not have the funds to install a slide between floors two and three, but they can certainly change a few words on a job advert to let people know the type of progressive environment they are trying to develop.

However, slapping the word ‘guru’ at the top of a job description doesn’t mean you have now solved the culture puzzle. There really is no substitute for getting the basics right and putting employee health, wellbeing and engagement at the heart of everything.

So, whilst it might seem an innocuous decision to tweak a few words here and there, it’s important to weigh up all the implications before revamping your approach to job descriptions. All told, it might not be wise to let novelty get in the way of maximising your chances to attract the best available talent. Sometimes it’s better to just shoot straight from the hip.


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