How to Dispute a Job Title Change

What Can I Do if My Boss Changes My Job Title?

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Reader Question:

I was recently offered a promotion to Chief Strategist from Sr. Director of Product Strategy. My new boss got the HR approvals and I even signed a transfer letter from HR that they sent me indicating my new job title and change in manager.

I was asked by the PR department to change my LinkedIn Profile and order new business cards for an upcoming show. My new boss approved everything, and I attended the event under the premise of my new role.

I was introduced as the Chief Strategist.

Five days after working in this new role, the head of HR told my boss that they have a problem with my new title and the HR manager who sent me the letter didn't get the necessary approvals. They told the CTO (Chief Technical Officer), my new boss, that he needs to revert my title back or create a new one.

Can they do that? Is this legal? How do I handle the public humiliation?

Our Response:

First, legal? Of course. Companies can change titles at will, as long as there isn't an employment contract. It would be rare to find a contracted title outside of a union setting.

Heck, one time the company I worked for decided to change all HR titles and I ended up with the fabulous title of Functional Lead HR Transition. Do you know what that means? Of course not. No one did. But, even getting a ridiculous title doesn't violate any employment laws.

There really isn't a lot of public humiliation involved either.

I know it feels embarrassing. You told everyone that you got a promotion — friends, family and clients. Heck, the public relations people were even involved.

Do you know how many of those people really care? Your spouse, your parents and you. And those people only care because they love you and want you to be happy.

Everyone else? They don't spend more than three seconds a year thinking about your title.

Now, all that said, this is totally unacceptable behavior on the part of your HR head. The mistake was made on her end, and she should fix it there.

That fix should not involve you reverting back to your old title. And now, I'm going to let you in on a little secret: HR is not the boss.

Oh, lots of people think HR has the final word on something like this. But, they don't. Management often concedes to HR. It's a nice excuse. “HR said no.” Say that and we all shuffle back to our desks, cursing the bad HR person.

While in this case, your HR person is behaving badly, she can be overridden. Maybe not by your direct supervisor, but there is somebody who can overrule her.

Recommended Steps

So, here's what you need to do.

  • Accept that the title mix up isn't as important as you think it is. Even though I'm telling you how to fight this, you may end up losing. If you can get to a place where you are okay with this, you'll sleep easier.
  • Talk to your boss. If your boss wanted to promote you to a job with chief in the title, your boss is not a first level supervisor with three years of experience. You undoubtedly report into someone pretty senior.

    Go to your boss and say, “Kate just told me that my title wasn't formally approved. Since I was introduced with the new title at the trade show last week, and PR has officially publicized my promotion, it will be pretty embarrassing for the company if they have to backpedal. What do we need to do to get this approved through proper channels as soon as possible?”

    Note, this dialogue does a few things. First, it doesn't mention your embarrassment at all, you're making it all about the company. Won't the company look silly if my title is changed? This is important because senior leadership people are very concerned about how the company is portrayed in the public eye.

    They care less about your feelings. (Although good managers do care about your feelings as well.)

    Second, if you state the problem this way, you're assuming that the Chief title is the right one and it's just a paperwork issue. You're not asking for a promotion or title change. You're asking how to fix the problem.
  • Find out the real issue. Normal HR people are super busy and don't care about silly things. So, if your boss gets push back, find out why the title of Chief Strategist isn't working for the head of HR.

    It may be that everyone at your pay level is supposed to have a title starting with AVP (Associate Vice President) and it's a higher grade for Chief. If that's the problem, change to AVP and let it drop.

    However, if the real problem is that she wanted to be consulted and wasn't, then you go on to the next step.
  • Escalate. If your boss cannot or will not escalate this, you can escalate it yourself. Go to your boss's boss and do the same thing. Since everyone signed off on this the first time, it should fix the problem.

    You can continue going up the hierarchy until you reach the HR person's boss. This may be the CEO, it may be the CFO, or it may be someone else. But that person has the power and authority to override an HR decision.

    What’s important is to recognize that HR is never the boss and that you are still doing the same job even with a different title. Because titles vary so much between companies, there isn't even a lot of difference on the resume between a Senior Director title and a Chief title. What's important is your accomplishments.