China Trends & Observations: The Only Way is Up or The Traps of Title Inflation.
By René J.M. Schillings
Friday, 6th June 2014
What goes up will come down is a popular predicate applied to fast growing and booming economies, and while everybody is hoping the bubble isn't going to burst while they are reaping the fruits of (unhealthy) growth few can resist to reach for the stars while opportunities are still out there for grabs.

While many industry observers have their reservations about a looming oversupply of (mostly) luxury hotels in China, for now most hotel companies are still growing their portfolios throughout all of Asia, with established locations still growing and new destinations also making a pitch.

Such dynamic environment offers plenty of opportunities for career hoteliers where the sport seems to be to get the best possible position, before the train looses steam.

Besides rising salaries as a clear sign that a labor- or talent market is under pressure, another very common tool to retain or to win over the best talents is to bestow a grander title to a position. Just like an overheating economy suffers from price inflation, the hotel industry in Asia suffers from title-inflation.

It is natural that ambitious hoteliers wish to see a natural progress in their career and their resume should therefore show a gradual path that underlines the growth in the form of more responsibilities and titles that indicate a growing seniority and experience in management.  When given a choice, it's harder to commit to a next job when this position carries a lesser title, or by actual responsibility shows it would be a step down on the career ladder.

Besides for the need to justify such move to family, friends and colleagues when this is not immediately recognized as another step up, a promotion simply feels better to the ego. To the untrained eye who scans a resume, any step down on the career ladder may indicate something unfortunate happened with the successful career? But does it always?

In the Art of War a retreat does not always imply to be in loosing streak of the war but a strategic repositioning to re-engage the enemy from a stronger vantage point. To exchange a big car or a big house for a smaller one that is better, newer or more economical can be done with convincing arguments, so why is it so hard to apply this to a career?  They way to the top is not always up in title alone but growing up in responsibility, job scope and mastering each step on the ladder, before taking the next.

Should a young hotelier, who made it to General Manager of a smaller hotel or resort, and perhaps working for a company that has few other hotels consider going back to a #2 role if he / she can join a much larger hotel company, manage an effectively much larger organization where he/ she will gain the General Manager role with a similarly large prestigious property in that organization a few years later?.

Is a move from an EAM role to a more straightforward Director of XX position a step down always, and is a Manager lower in rank than a Director? In a society that is focused on success and with peer-pressure plus no shortage of opportunities, it is all to easy to become too focused on title only, and to become too focused on growing the resume and track records of success and all the while loosing sight of the real personal & professional progress on the way.

Steam rolling through the stages of a career may look great on paper but has the hidden trap that by spending less time in the various stages to the top, the solidity of foundations laid and the gaining of experience, insights and exposure is being leapfrogged for the sake of fast progress.

This can then backfire on a manager when he reaches a position where he /she is assumed to be knowledgeable and experienced, but has in fact just skimmed the surfaces. A qualified recruiter or hiring manager would rather question too fast a rise through the ranks, rather than assuming that an applicant at hand is making a stellar career, based on ability.

One has to put job titles and functions into perspective rather than in terms of what they really encompass. A well-trained recruiter will recognize the job responsibility and size of operations any hotelier handles more so than just the job title alone, and / or is at least trained to verify what the positions on a resume really stand for.

This may require asking further questions and detailing job scopes and responsibilities on a resume before presenting it to a potential employer. With the creativity displayed in titles today in hospitality as well as different companies sometimes titling roles differently one can no longer assume that a title matches a conventional definition as to where a hotelier stands in his / her career, just based on title. If we only take the variety of titles bestowed on chefs, ranging from Executive Chef to Chef de Cuisine to Head Chef or Director of Culinary and then various interpretations of what a Sous Chef is, and throw in any other creative title, it may confuse even industry insiders.

This also makes it confusing to job applicants when jobs are advertised by title alone, without indication of what responsibility goes behind it in terms of the size of operation, the volume of the business, the number of business units covered, or the number of staff in a team.

It's quite clear that being the Executive Chef of a single restaurant with 40 seats is a very different job than being the Executive Chef of a Hotel—Casino with 15 restaurants, warranting not only more or less experience in being a chef, but a whole range of responsibilities required for a larger position besides being a good cook.

On the other hand, somebody with a large title on a small organization may be required to apply a diversity of skills and spread his focus on many different issues than somebody who is just a manager in a huge organization, but can focus on that role alone, and has a very solid support structure of other managers to support that role. What we currently see as a short term solution to attract or to keep very experienced Directors is the application of the EAM title in any way imaginable.

While the hotel industry knew the title of Executive Assistant Manager, oddly enough a ‘Manager' more senior and higher in rank than a Director, the EAM role was mostly applied to very large operations and applicable mostly to the operational departments of Food & Beverage and Rooms.

Now it is not uncommon to see hoteliers with titles like EAM Human Resources, EAM Finance, even EAM Spa & Health Club in China. EAM Sales & Marketing is the most common seen title now in this title inflation game, regularly seen in China.

When such EAM is not complimented by a real Director or Division Head under him / her, looking after the daily affaires of the named department, and when such EAM has effectively no other responsibilities than the field of Sales & Marketing / Finance / HR etc. even while fulfilling a de-facto # 2 role in the hotel, than bestowing such EAM title is just an optical trick, while at the same time scavenging on having a proper # 2 in the hotel, by title of EAM (full stop), a Resident Manager of Hotel Manager.

The title of Deputy General Manager in hotels is another example as too often bestowed on owner representatives who look after the business for the owner, but who are not hotel managers by career, and therefore as such not the real replacement for the General Manager, in matters of running the hotel on a daily basis, in absence of the General Manager. 

This certainly does create confusion for hotel guests, as well as hotel employees. After all, job titles are just that, it does not always cover the load. The CEO & President of a 1-man company make find pleasure in presenting his business card to impress, but can fool with this only those more ignorant than himself

In the current market situation few hotelier who are doing fine in their careers, needs to really step down in the career ladder, just to find employment. With a growing number of hotels in Asia, shortages on local talents and a relatively high management turnover, hotels would be very happy already to hire somebody who comes from the same position, from another similar hotel. There are still a few hotel companies that have such strong reputation as hotel brand or as employer that they can insist that to join them, one has to go at least 1 real step down in title.

But these hotel companies find themselves in a loosing battle for talents, because a younger generation no longer believes in that carrot offered, while there are enough opportunities around for the ambitious, upward-moving and mobile, and hoteliers like every other human, seeking development of their skills would want to move on doing other things with their career than the same job for more than 5 years.

Even the traditionally most desired hotel companies to work for are also growing so fast that they can no longer maintain the policy of only hiring those willing to take the same position or a step down even, always, for all locations. And truth be told, due to the fast expansion of these top hotel brands they also have not always delivered their promise that as an organization they are so much better to work for than their competition on the labor and talent market, to insist newcomers join them on a lower rank.

As a recruiter, it is easier to always offer a ‘better' job to those who feel ready to move to the next big thing, when this comes with a higher title, but we should be resistant to participate ourselves in an un-controlled title inflation and promoting promising talents to positions where their learning curve makes a halt.

It is harder to convince a potential candidate to consider what seems like a step down but when one looks closer at the details, it is for sure an improvement of the career, a solid step in the right direction and worth trying to make the candidate to see this as well. To do this one must first of all know the details of a job, the organization that is hiring very well, not just by the mere job description or a title position.

In addition one must know the candidate for a longer period and know where he / she wants to go in life and with their career and most of all the recruiter must have the trust of the applicant, that we work in their interest too, for a longer and successful career with many steps on the ladder to take.

To consider the ‘step down' in title or rank to improve the learning curve on a career, by going into a larger organization, or a hotel that is a market leader, or a brand or location that is definitely recognized as a very good & solid place to work is something more young hoteliers should consider.

For those who make that step, motivated by realistic arguments, they can show stamina and foresight to be growing their career and laying solid foundations for more to come in the near future.

René J.M. Schillings, a Dutch National, is the Managing Director of TOP Hoteliers, the first specialized hospitality recruitment agency to open offices in the People's Republic of China (in 2004). Based in Hong Kong he devotes most of his time managing the 3 offices in Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Beijing, where his team of consultants recruit hotel managers for all major international and some local hotel companies in China. His company was very early to recognize the need for local talent, Mandarin speaking expatriates and China experienced expatriates. His knowledge of the China Hotel Industry stems from his career as Hotelier in China that began in 1997. He has a BA in Hotel Management from Stenden University, a.k.a Hotel Management School Leeuwarden, The Netherlands and an MA in International Tourism & Leisure Studies from Metropolitan University in London, England. He is a keen observer of industry trends and has published numerous articles on HR issues in hospitality in China & Asia. Working in China, Hong Kong & Korea since the late 1990's, René has lived in Hong Kong from 2005 to 2012 and resides since 2013 in Thailand with his wife and 2 children.

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