The elevator doors slide open on the fifth floor of 222 Berkeley St. in the Back Bay. As you enter the headquarters of the storied Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, home to classics like “Walden” and “Animal Farm,” a cheerful young woman pops out from behind a desk.
“Welcome to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,” says the employee, dressed in bright hues, a dead ringer for a J.Crew model.
As the first stop at the 181-year-old publishing giant and one of Boston’s oldest companies, Hillary Creedon greets guests, answers phones, and hangs up coats. But don’t call her a receptionist.
“My job is to be friendly and comfortable around people,” said Creedon, 22. And her job title? She is Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s director of first impressions.
“There is a stereotype that comes from being a receptionist,” she said. “Clearly there’s a difference.”
In the age of personal branding, when generic won’t fly, job titles are getting a makeover. Yes, the trend took off years ago in start-up and technology world, where company perks — from free food to foosball to unique job titles — lured (and still lure) talent.
Now more traditional fields are trading in stodgy titles for those with a bit more flair. Hotels are hiring social media butlers, party planners are now directors of spark, even Subway has changed sub maker to “sandwich artist.”
Job titles like ninja, evangelist, and Jedi may conjure up a “Star Wars” character ready for battle, but new titles are shaking up the corporate org chart, bringing a creative approach — and perhaps, mind-set — front and center.
When Microsoft’s former vice president Linda Zecher took the reins at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt over a year ago, modernizing the company was about more than e-book optimization.
Top on the CEO’s corporate culture list was changing its classic image to signal to the world a new force in publishing had arrived.
“She began revamping the first impression as soon as she got here,” said Josef Blumenfeld, senior vice president of corporate communications, who is holding onto his traditional title for now.
When Joel Idelson joined Boston advertising agency Allen & Gerritsen, his title was as important as his salary. Instead of keeping the title of senior vice president of business development, Idelson convinced company president Andrew Graff to agree to something that sounded more interesting, provocative, even optimistic.
Idelson is Allen & Gerritsen’s creator of opportunities.
“It was important to me to be part of a company that would embrace a title like that,” said Idelson, 43.
Helping clients like Hannaford, Papa Gino’s, and D’Angelo grow their businesses with clever media spots requires someone who can think beyond the business card. To Idelson, a business developer reminded him of “a guy in a cheesy narrow jacket with a bad haircut selling used cars.”
Instead, he put a confident and approachable spin on his position, one where creating relationships is everything. “I have a very client-facing job,” he said. “This is who I want to be.”
The desire to craft or re-envision a job title reflects the increasing individuality of the worker, human resource experts say. And employers looking to attract millennials, born between 1977 and 1997, are paying close attention.
“There is a need, for the younger generation, for self-expression. A desire for uniqueness, a desire to seem more important than the job might actually be,” said Susan Heathfield, a human resources expert who writes about the industry for About.com.
The loosening of job titles may reflect a corporate plan to make a business seem more forward thinking, more tech-savvy, more innovative. But it may also reflect a generational shift.
“Generation Y, or our millennials, were groomed by families to have an overly inflated emphasis on their own self-worth,” said Heathfield. “You are going to see this increasingly reflected in job titles. They are not going to have a title like ‘receptionist’ and feel rewarded.”
That said, a broader and more imaginative job title may allow workers to feel more empowered and creative.
As ambassador of buzz at Grasshopper, a Needham-based virtual phone company that helps businesses go mobile, Taylor Aldredge says he has the freedom “to do everything.”
Because the 25-year-old doesn’t have a traditional title such as corporate communications associate, “I can be creative by whatever means necessary,” he said.
Often that’s schmoozing with entrepreneurs, journalists, and bloggers.
“Being an ambassador of buzz is a layer to my life rather than a typical job and it never feels like work,” he said.
Plus, it’s great at parties.
“Just telling people my title gets a conversation going about Grasshopper and what we do for small businesses and entrepreneurs,” said Aldredge. “We don’t want to be lumped in with old, corporate companies.”
Though intriguing, quirky titles may not always be the best career move. Kathy O’Reilly, senior director of social media and public relations at Monster.com cautions job seekers about putting job titles like “ninja” or “Jedi” on their resumes. One company’s Jedi may be another company’s ewok, making it more time consuming for a potential employer to assess a candidate’s skills and experience.
“It’s a challenge on the recruitment side,” said O’Reilly. “On the surface it seems fun and nuanced, but a recruiter can’t find you.”
With the average millennial changing jobs every three years, according to New York executive development firm Future Workplace, being an ambassador of anything may work against employees in the long run.
“Folks love trendy titles, but does it create a career path?” said O’Reilly. “Where do you go from ninja? To samurai? Not likely.”
But for those who have worked in the buzz department, like Stephanie Bullis, Grasshopper’s Word of Mouth Marketing Manager, the right title can keep a worker engaged and less likely to switch companies.
“It makes the job feel less rigid,” said Bullis. “No one should be restrained by what their title is.”
Beyond the fun factor, it’s part of a mind-set that can boost excitement and productivity.
“The message is, if this company allows their employees to have cool titles,” said Bullis, “I’d like to be part of that.”