Image: Steve Jobs
Paul Sakuma  /  AP file
Steve Jobs may be Apple's CEO, but "Chief Know it All" is what he calls himself.
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updated 11/9/2006 3:47:16 PM ET 2006-11-09T20:47:16

What’s in a job title? That which we call a receptionist, by any other word would still greet visitors and answer phones. Right? So why have some companies started calling their receptionists Directors of First Impressions?

Companies may have money to hire these days, but raises are still hard to come by. To boost morale and retention rates, firms have relied instead on compensating employees with bigger job titles. Unfortunately, that solution isn't working so well. A recent study by the executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International found 85 percent of respondents said a bigger job title alone will not convince them to stay in their job. "Companies saw it as a retention tool, but it turned out not to be," says Chuck Wardell, head of Korn/Ferry's Northeast region.

That finding may or may not stem the trend toward inflated, hokey and sometimes hilarious job titles. Some, like the Director of First Impressions, are semi-discernible. Others, like the Chief Troublemaker, are a mystery. In fact, that's what Joanna Pineda's business card says. Pineda founded the Alexandria, Va.-based Web design firm Matrix Group in 1999 after working for others. In her role as founder she not only goes after new clients, she is ultimately responsible for making sure existing clients are happy. That's where the troublemaker part comes in. "She stirs the pot and asks if we can do better," says Emi Usui, a Matrix spokesperson.

Innovative technology companies helped start the trend. At Yahoo, spokesperson Heidi Burgett, for example, is a Yahoo Evangelist. Over at America Online, the top boss of the site's matchmaking service, holds the title CEO of Love. But in recent years, the lingo has trickled throughout the corporate mainstream. The person in charge of organizing Berkshire Hathaway's famously well attended and event-filled annual meeting is the Director of Chaos.

In some cases it's less about money and more the way your title makes you feel about your work. Consider Chris Young, founder of The Rainmaker Group in Bismark, N.D., an employee relations company. Young's team helps employees find purpose in what they do. One way they accomplish that is by asking employees to think about what their job titles mean. "If I say, 'Your job title is a phone operator. How would you answer that phone? Like a phone operator. If I say, you're the Director of First Impressions, you know the way you answer the phone matters. You're going to answer the phone differently.'"

Young's goal is to make employees as effective as possible. "You live your title. Whatever your title is, that's what you'll be." As such, Young's business card carries two titles: Founder and Difference Maker. He doesn't want people to be intimidated by a title of Chief Executive Officer or Executive Director so he came up with a way to make people laugh and get a sense of what he does. He even signs tax forms for the company as Difference Maker.

Young asks his clients to come up with their own job titles. Among them: Director of Wow Projects (people who get to work on really cool projects) and Director of the Road Less Traveled (this doesn't really say anything but this title holder likes to think he does things differently.)

In other cases, a title embodies the company's unique identity. That's certainly the case with Southwest Airline's Director of Culture. Anyone who has ever seen one of their commercials or flown with them knows that the crew likes to have fun. It's become ingrained in the company's culture. To preserve that culture, Southwest employs a Director of Culture Activities. That person oversees the local culture committees. They do things like keep morale up, throw barbeques and raise money for employees going through hardships.

Not taking yourself too seriously is something Young feels is important to a business' success. At The Rainmaker Group his employees have titles like Minister of Intel (accountant), Human Talent Developer (human resources) and Upward Mobility Big Shot (salesperson). "It lightens the spirit and gets people thinking," says Young. "I say it's not a job description. It's a state of mind.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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