Title vs salary: A guide to not selling yourself short when negotiating a new job offer

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  • When you get the salary offer of your dreams with a title that doesn't match, ensure you're not selling yourself short.
  • Accepting a senior salary and a junior title could mean you are potentially outpricing yourself in the job market.
  • It is key to avoid downplaying your concerns and address your title or salary concerns during the recruitment process.

Job titles matter because words are powerful. They give us the confidence and sense of purpose we need to go about our days.

That bursting sense of pride you feel, but publicly deny, when you’re introduced as the “Head of Department” or “CEO” by one of those tjatjarag relatives at a family gathering, cannot be ignored.

But, what happens when you finally get the salary offer of your dreams, sans the equally fancy job title? You’re allowed to scream before asking bra God, “Why couldn’t I just get the job without any of the drama”.

A senior salary and a junior title may be a non-issue for some but experts warn that by going this route, you could potentially “outprice” yourself on the job market.

A few months into her new role, Thuli Vilakazi, an experienced professional, wished she had negotiated a better title.

“All my life I had dreamt of working for this reputable investment company, and when the time to accept the offer came, all I could think of were the benefits of my new salary. I’d finally realise my #TravelGoals, buy a new car and be able to save for a rainy day. Yes, the new title could’ve been fancier and more senior but I didn’t want to come across as demanding and ungrateful,” she shares.

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Salary-title mismatch

According to Gcina Dube, managing member and owner of a staffing services company Lwati Loluhle, a salary is more important than the title, and employees should be remunerated according to their level of responsibility.

“I always advise candidates to negotiate a salary that’s market-related and matches their experience. The title may not be as prestigious as they’d like, or they may be called something completely different (along industry standards), as long as the candidate’s earnings is in line with their level of decision-making and responsibility,” Dube explains.

When a job title doesn’t match the salary or vice versa, Dube says it’s the the recruiter’s responsibility to discuss all the details that may impact the applicant’s choices.

“The recruiter takes the person through the title, salary, benefits and the policy supporting it. Where there is a disconnect, the candidate must understand the reason for the offer and the company policy, match that against her own experience and evaluate how the role contributes towards her overall career development. Then she can go back to the employer to have a discussion,” Dube continues.

In the case of an employee believing they were done an injustice during the recruitment stage, it’s important that they voice their concerns in reviews and other platforms designed to assess improvement, because there are challenges to a senior salary with a junior title. One of them being the possibility of outpricing yourself from what the market and industry pays for your skill set.

“This means that when you want to move to a different company, they might not afford you and you’d have to stay in the same company for longer,” Dube explains.

And there’s a definite downside to being “too expensive” for job titles at your level, says Phiona Martin, a Joburg-based industrial psychologist and career coach.

“On the other hand, the advantage is that you’ll be earning more than your peers in similar roles. A high salary positions you well in job negotiations, as you’ll have a higher baseline to start from during discussions,” she adds.

Both experts reiterate the importance of speaking out.

“Candidates should be given the opportunity to ask as many questions as possible during interviews. It gives them the opportunity to clarify any details they might need to help them make an informed decision. In the case of someone accepting and later having doubts, it might mean that the interviewer didn’t clarify certain facts well enough,” Dube adds.

The art of negotiating

Vilakazi’s regret is not uncommon. Martin says the solution would be to negotiate for a better title in a professional and polite setting.

“Employees should first understand the structure of the division and company before making their request. In a larger company where titles are standardised, it may be more challenging. If the role is new, unique or highly specialised, and there aren’t other people doing similar work – there may be room for negotiation. Small to medium size companies tend to have more flexibility around this request,” Martin advises.

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The future, and beyond

When making your next career move and working on an exit strategy, determine the key elements you want in your next role.

“For example, be clear if you want to manage people or a budget, or having a global presence. Ensure the positions you’re looking for match your motivations to move. This means asking the right questions about the scope of the position when engaging with the potential employer. Get a clear sense of what the role entails, and what the career path and growth opportunities are in that company,” Martin adds. 

Moving forward
  • Don’t die in silence. Voice your job title concerns earlier on in the recruitment process.
  • Know your industry. Check the industry norms and benchmarks before suggesting an appropriate title.
  • Do your research. Do not demand a high salary without looking at the role and the responsibilities, the market and industry pay.
  • Look into the company’s internal policy. Consider the impact and level of responsibility of the new job title you are proposing.
  • Make calculated moves. When making money and career moves, observe what other people who have walked a similar path have done, and try to emulate their strategies.

She says, to avoid downplaying your concerns or making the same mistake, don’t focus on title only.

“Consider growth opportunities in that role and don’t only look at the short-term potential. And do consider the size of the company. Small companies tend to be more generous with job titles. More important, though, is the scope of work. It’s imperative to question if a job title reflects the responsibilities. Titles can be deceiving,” Martin warns.

“If you’re asked about a ‘demotion move’, explain how, although you were in a lesser title, there were growth opportunities in that role and you developed new skills, increased proficiency or showed an eagerness to learn. For example, if you went from HR officer to administrator, mention the learning opportunities and illustrate what these new learning and growth points were, in spite of being ‘lesser’ in title.

“Remember that a salary carries a lot of weight when potential employers gauge the level of your position. For example, having the title of director but with a salary of a junior manager (also known as ‘big title, no money’) your credibility might be questioned. The scope of the role is also scrutinised at interview and shortlisting stages. Sometimes, the tasks you’re doing will carry more weight than a title. Think of where the position sits on the structure,” she continues.

Salary review time

It’s important to understand that salaries are allocated to roles based on their impact in the business, as well as the level of responsibility, Dube says, adding that all matters related to remuneration must be agreed to and stated in writing.

“When preparing for such a meeting, have a clear understanding of the numbers in the industry, market and the skills set required. Then, go further and look at internal policy, consider your own career path and development, the impact and level of responsibility of the role. Only then can you approach the employer for a discussion,” Dube adds.

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