Of Job Titles and Mind Games

One old guy says to the other:

“Max, you’ve been my best friend for 30 years. You’re a fine human being. But you have always had one very big fault.”

“And what, pray tell, would that be?”

“You are very pretentious!”

“Pretentious? PRETENTIOUS? MOI?”


My sermon today, brothers and sisters, is pretentious job titles and related marketplace obfuscations.

In Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado,” Pooh-Bah, an insolent courtier, is ranked “Lord High Everything Else.” The name quickly passed into the vernacular, embodying a puffed-up bureaucrat or dignitary whose self-regard far exceeds his worth. pooh-bah-ism thrives today. Some instances stem from old-fashioned or contemporary narcissism. Others have a more sinister cast. Take the pooh-bah strategy now being used by some businesses to nickel and dime job applicants in our sputtering economy.

A friend’s daughter was fired from a lucrative public relations position after her firm’s major hedge fund client went under. She trod the usual headhunter and networking path, to no avail. Her nest egg dwindling, she replied to a newspaper ad for an “assistant public relations manager” at a small electronics company.

She submitted her resume and was pleased to get a quick response. She was even happier when a jovial interviewer, after quickly glancing at her CV, declared that she was just who they were looking for. He was pleased to offer her $23,000 per – with no benefits! Since he hadn’t been exactly forthright about her duties with his company, she asked him to define what earning her meager bread actually involved.

“Oh, you’ll be sitting at our front desk,” he replied airily. “You’ll greet clients, answer the phone, take messages.”

“Isn’t that what a receptionist does?”

“Not in your case. With your terrific background in public relations, you’ll be expert at interfacing with our clients. You may even be a potential client’s first interface!”

“Would I ever get paid more, or do more?”

“More of what? Think of yourself as laying a foundation for us. The sign on your desk says it all.” (He bracketed each word with double-handed “air quotes.”) “ASSISTANT! PUBLIC!! RELATIONS!!! MANAGER!!!!” As for more pay, who could tell what good things time eventually might deliver in the interfacing line?

She declined the offer, restraining the urge to tell him where he could insert his quotable fingers.

Anecdotal research into similarly tarted-up job descriptions revealed titles like “executive clerical assistant” for straight-up secretary or “assistant floor maintenance manager” for pick-up-that-broom-and-push janitor (“assisting” and “managing” evidently are deemed strong employment lures).

I expect that most applicants recognize these high-falutin’ appellations as scams pitched at seducing them into accepting wages that were slavish even before the current recession. Given the current job famine, people are willing to work for menial pay without having to be gulled. The woman of my tale heard that someone from her former firm had signed on with the above firm. She totally knew her coworker was being punked out. She trashed the sign and is perversely proud to call herself a mere receptionist to her boss.

The only would-be employees I’ve heard about who poignantly hug pooh-bah titles to their bosoms are recent college graduates who work for little or no money as “interns,” often for legal, financial, and entertainment firms. They eagerly embrace positions of “assistant reader,” “assistant researcher,” or “assistant talent agent,” because their titles are about all the material reward they will ever see. The promise of permanent high-profile employment, held constantly just out of reach like the donkey’s carrot, largely goes unfulfilled. As per my previous piece about the HBO series “Girls” (“Girls Captures Angst of 20-Somethings,” these terrific kids are being shamefully exploited as a willing source of cheap, fungible labor.

There’s villainous antipretentious pretense in the pervasive practice of relabeling a personnel department as the “Human Resources” department. I don’t know exactly when the first HR division went up, but it seems to have been sincerely convened to make employees feel that knotty work issues could be handled with sensitivity and compassion. Political correctness at its best, as it were.

These days, a communiqué from Human Resources breeds fear and anger, since its chief resource is often a pink slip, and its main mission is delivering it in a gentler, kinder fashion so as to discourage the soon-to-be ex-employee from going postal. Devious artifices used to warn people that the ax was about to fall would be laughable if they weren’t so repellant.

Thus, one is not getting one’s !!@@**!! fired but is participating in a “workforce reorganization” (usually sans any further cushion other than 2 weeks’ severance, and you should feel grateful for the generosity). A British correspondent described what is surely the most absurd of these malignancies: Folks at his firm were informed that they might be facing a “synergy-related headcount restructuring.” One recalls the Circumlocution Office in Dickens’s “Little Dorrit.”

The pretentious titles of those lucky enough to have secure, if not high-end work, might reflect the culture of narcissism Christopher Lasch described as far back as 1979. But an inflated job title does not necessarily spring from the employee’s vanity. It might rather reflect an employer’s bloated self-regard or some bureaucrat’s misguided notion of political correctness or cultural diversity. This reflects a mentality that insists that a grade school baseball game should have no winners or losers and that every player must get a prize to avoid potentially bruised feelings.

Whatever the cause, bartenders have become mixologists; garbage collectors provide environmental waste transportation. Another English acquaintance who works at a chamber of commerce found himself listed as a “town centre manager.” Small businesses get haut pretense monikers. The 1942 Ginsberg Bra and Girdle Factory becomes the Ginsberg Lingerie Group. Dan’s morning donut-and-java diner is transformed – poof! – into La Brasserie Danielle. Movie end credits, once confined to a few frames and names, now extend into infinity, proclaiming the Best Boy’s Best Boy. (Granted, these particular cases can involve money as much as ego: a lion’s share of Lalaland legal time is consumed wrangling at $700 per hour and skyward overscreen credits, be they ever so humble.)

I confess to knowing little about pooh-bah titles in the higher echelons of corporate America. I grew up with Bob Hope’s chronic radio jibes about Hollywood vice presidents. According to Hope, a studio VP chiefly competed with fellow “yes men,” parroting whatever crazed notion his mogul was floating that day. Otherwise, he practiced his golf swing in a palatial office or stroked his narcissism to an even higher gloss by savoring his journal of unanswered calls. (This sort of thing can’t be made up. If you don’t believe me, see Robert Altman’s “The Player” [1992].)

The few CEOs and CFOs I’ve met through my work are fine people who’ve succeeded through talent and industry. But I have it on good authority that pooh-bahs like Hope’s Wilshire Boulevard VPs inhabit the boardrooms of our day. Proud over petty acronyms,* they savor their ultimate pretentious moi prize: a corner office with football field square footage and at least two windows looking down on the peons toiling in the Gotham canyons below.

*e.g., VPOOJAE: Vice President of Outsourcing Just About Everything. All right, I made that one up. But not by much.

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