Ask an Engineering Team Lead: What is Title Inflation and is it Bad for My Career?

What is Title Inflation?

Title inflation is essentially giving someone a bigger, and more senior, title without giving them the responsibility, or pay, of that job. It happens too often sadly. Instead of paying someone a better salary, a company may promote you! But in reality, you’re doing the same job, or maybe with slightly more responsibility. But if you looked up the industry standards for what that role is, you’ll realize that what you do and what you’re responsible for doesn’t match what the industry says. Sure, titles do fluctuate from company to company, but in large titles have specific meanings. If you have a job title, but the industry’s job descriptions doesn’t match what you do, and you don’t make the salary range for that job, there’s a high chance you’re suffering from title inflation.

Is it Bad for My Career?

Yes. You’re being manipulated in the end. Your company doesn’t respect you enough to give you the proper responsibility, or the pay. Many times it’s a means to keep you happy, but they’re still using you. And even worse, if you try to leave your job and find another, your work history will be an immediate yellow or red flag for people. That means you’ll have less responses to your applications, and even if you do get a response, there’s a high likelihood that you’ll have to answer some difficult questions that will challenge your title, responsibilities, capabilities, more so than if you didn’t have an inflated title.

Take for real-world example I ran into: a software engineer with 3 years experience. Their company loved them because they’re passionate, eager, smart, etc. but instead of paying them better, they’re promoted to a Senior Software Engineer role. That’s already extremely fast for someone with 3 years experience. Now they want to promote them to Staff Engineer in 1 year! Now they’re looking to be a Staff Engineer with 4 years experience.

Staff Engineers across the industry are some of the most talented, dedicated, and capable engineers. They take on extremely difficult, high-risk, and barely defined problems, and work across multiple teams and still succeed. And they’re usually the ones that have large influence over how software is built across an entire organization at large. And the minimum amount of experience is 10 years, where most have 15-20 years experience moving into this role. This is one step below Architect, which is the top tech-based role in the industry. Many people who choose to stay in code don’t even make it to Staff level. Yet this person was actively going to be promoted to Staff Engineer.

Turns out, there’s multiple Staff Engineers on the same team, and most have the same amount of experience. And the work defined for that role is essentially a mid-level engineer.

The future outlook is that anytime someone reads their resume, they’ll see they got promoted to one of the top roles in the industry extremely quickly. That’ll either turn people away, or they’ll end up hitting them hard with questions about why they got promoted, only to quickly find it wasn’t justified. And that’s a problem they’ll continue to face or many years.

So yes, it’s bad for your career short-term and long-term. And it’s most likely you’re being taken advantage of.