After Jack Roseman hired his two-man company's first employee - an urgently needed computer programmer - the man dropped by Roseman's office and said, "Incidentally, Jack, what's my title?"
Roseman, intent on getting the programmer out of his office and behind a keyboard, told him, "I'll tell you what. I'm chairman. You can be assistant to the chairman."Within about a week, the new employee had business cards with "Assistant to the Chairman" printed on them and was handing them out to visitors.
Roseman, who was astonished by the move, said the episode has influenced his business habits. He now believes that although a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, people care deeply about their titles.
Business academics agree.
"Your self-concept depends on what you do and what you're called, and even if you simply change the title it affects your ego. It affects your personality," said Patrick Lennahan, director of the Career Center at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I.
Lennahan, who has studied ego involvement in careers, found that many people would rather have a prestigious title than money, probably because a title boosts job satisfaction.
Roseman has taken psychological advantage of that fact. In the early 1970s, as president of a growing computer service company, On-Line Systems, he saved the company several thousand dollars by manipulating titles. He offered his far-flung, isolated sales staffers a choice between the titles "sales manager" or "salesman"; the latter came with an extra $2,000 or so a year.
Nearly everyone took the title "manager" with the lower pay.
"The thing that makes people stay is not necessarily money," Roseman said. "Why do they stay, day after day, coming back to you? It's because they're happy." A showy title helps make them feel appreciated.
Roseman himself boasts several titles: associate director of the Donald H. Jones Center for Entrepreneurship and distinguished adjunct professor for the Graduate School of Industrial Administration, both at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He also is a contributing columnist to Pittsburgh TEQ, a trade magazine on technology.
He was chairman of Heliodyne, which has since been bought out, and his resume also boasts the titles of manager, vice president, partner, founder, board member, adviser, director emeritus and mentor-in-residence.
Employees tend to favor titles that include the word "manager" or "director." And they notice the fine points of how that title is modified.
"You can be an `assistant manager' or an `assistant to the manager,' and there is a huge difference," Lennahan said.
Much of the difference is how co-workers react to the person with the higher title. People defer more readily to a vice president - no matter how incompetent - than a manager, and so on down the line.
"How long somebody will wait for you, whether you can be put on hold on the telephone or not - those are things that people aren't always thinking about but something people do without thinking," Lennahan said.
Angela Boch, manager of Chico's women's clothing store in Pittsburgh, noticed a change when she was promoted from assistant manager.
"Customers feel they can talk to you," Boch said. "When you say `manager,' they perk up." But inside the store she uses a generic business card identifying the bearer as a member of The Management Team, which includes all employees.
Vivien Gottlieb, a registered nurse, felt that her title's meaning eroded with the advent of nursing technicians, who need much less training before working in offices and hospitals.
"They're not emphasizing who's an R.N.," Gottlieb said. "I was very proud of becoming an R.N."
For the well-titled away from work, business cards help alert strangers to one's status. A card with no title can mean the bearer is unemployed, or it can indicate a very high status: president of the company, for example.
Lee Svete, director of career services at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., said that in the past year or so, he has noticed employers dressing up the titles of the jobs for which they are recruiting college students.
Instead of advertising for sales representatives, they will tout their "management leadership development program," Svete said. "So rather than 10 resumes for the sales representative, they'll get 90." The candidates will be better qualified, too.
Recent graduates will sacrifice money for a title and hope to move up the ladder later, he said. "They think that if they change employers, being vice president is going to get them to a higher level than being an analyst."