The Meaning of Job Titles in Finance

Job titles influence how others view you
Buero Monaco/Taxi/Getty Images

The financial services industry has unique conventions regarding job titles. Knowing these will help you evaluate job opportunities and your career progress. Two other closely related topics are why job titles matter and what job descriptions mean. Follow the links for articles covering these issues in depth.

Finance Hierarchy Titles

For those pursuing careers in financial management or financial analysis in industries other than financial services, two points are worth making.

First, if you choose to work for a relatively young firm in a field such as technology, media or creative services, you may receive a rather quirky or idiosyncratic title that will be meaningless (or, worse yet, seem frivolous) to more traditional firms, should you later want to change employers.

Second, if you join a very large and bureaucratic firm, you may be assigned a job title that gives no real hint of your actual responsibilities and thus may confuse a new prospective employer. It is especially so if you hold a relatively unique position. It is possible that the firm will not create an appropriate title, but instead assign you an existing one that seems "close enough."

For example, in its final few decades, the vast bulk of the white collar workforce in the old Western Electric division of AT&T consisted of engineers and computer programmers. The latter got job titles such as Information Systems Staff Member (ISSM) or Information Systems Senior Staff Member (ISSSM).

Western Electric also employed a contingent of economists, management scientists (often called quants today) and financial analysts to forecast sales, support budgeting processes and analyze competitors. Because their number was relatively small, they were not deemed to merit a unique set of job titles, and thus were categorized as Information Systems Staff.

  It was confusing for hiring managers in other AT&T affiliates, never mind for those outside AT&T.

Vice President

Most noteworthy is the liberal fashion with which financial services firms give employees the rank of Vice President. In other industries, this designation is reserved for a handful of the most senior executives. In a financial services firm, Vice President generally is an honorific earned by an individual, or an indicator of rank, rather than a descriptive attached to a specific position in the firm. A Vice President title often is conferred as a promotion in place, with the recipient retaining his or her current job and responsibilities.

Because so many management employees eventually become Vice Presidents, there typically is a hierarchy within this broad category. For example, by the late 1990s Merrill Lynch had this menu of VP job titles for support staff, with the highest at the top:

  • Senior Executive VP
  • Executive VP
  • Senior VP
  • First VP
  • Director
  • VP
  • Assistant VP

Among the above, only the two varieties of Executive VP actually attached to specific jobs within the corporation. Director was introduced by Merrill Lynch in the late 1990s, as a way to single out certain VPs for special recognition while leaving them in place.

By contrast, getting an upgrade to First VP usually required holding a job at a higher level in the organizational hierarchy. To complicate matters further, First VPs might have Directors or ordinary VPs as their peers on the organization chart.

An upgrade in job title may or may not bring an automatic increase in compensation, or in the potential for future increases. Benefits (such as vacation time) typically increase with such upgrades. The rules vary among employers.

Within the universe of producers there normally is an entirely separate hierarchy of Vice Presidents, with different criteria for admission and different benefits associated with each level. For example, a financial advisor might be elevated to VP-Investments or First VP-Investments based on reaching specific, quantifiable criteria related to the size and profitability of his or her book of business.