Words mean a lot at Gusto, where for three years I led the people team. Lobby signs, hashtags, values—thoughtful language created a dialogue that helped us magnify the things we believed in. But by the time I left, it was the absence of words that was shaping our culture.
At a point when we were hiring at a particularly fast pace, a long list of labels arose for open roles—advocates, specialists, experts—and each one was causing confusion externally. Our leadership team convened one hot afternoon in July to explore the impact all these titles were having on our team. Yes, we knew titles helped with role clarity, but they also were casting an unnecessary shadow. When people mention their titles in conversation, it can be code for how important they think they are in an organization. We really cared about the clarity part, but not the other half. During the meeting, our CTO took a provocative stance to kick off the discussion, “What if we got rid of titles completely? I don’t need to be called ‘CTO.’”
In that meeting, we realized: Titles were not needed at our company at the time. They were not a measurement of someone’s contributions. They didn’t make us stronger, wiser, or bring us closer to achieving our mission. In fact, titles were adding extra layers and points of confusion.
So we decided to test it out. Inside that conference room, the leadership team made a commitment to get rid of titles, and at the same time, everything those handful of letters represented.
Then we chatted with other companies who had gone title-free to see what they learned. Several conversations and a company-wide communication later, and our title-less office became real.
This is the email I sent to the team:
I thought there would be an uprising after that email went out. And I made sure to prepare for it, because I can really understand the other side—people who think this change means eliminating something they’ve worked hard in their career to achieve. But soon after the announcement, I started getting emails that said things such as, “This is great,” “This is so aligned with our values,” and “I’m really excited we’re trying this out and being true to who we are.” The immediate aftermath was overwhelmingly positive. It’s funny because we got rid of job titles in the same month we gave our snacks a healthy transformation, and the snacks were way more controversial.
The most immediate change was in our recruiting. Our hiring managers saw incredible people come through—people who never would’ve applied before because all the titles were preventing them from taking the leap. Many title-free companies we’d talked with while we were in the research phase had mentioned a similar phenomena. Titles could attract the wrong kind of candidates. Not having titles can filter those people out: If we were truly a “no-egos” culture, we could zero in on the people who were most likely to thrive. Fewer candidates were coming through, but we were talking to more people who are better aligned.
Going title-less also impacted us on a psychological level. Someone wasn’t a “senior customer care advocate,” they were simply on the care team. That slight shift in wording captured the collaborative nature of what we were trying to accomplish.
What we learned
Breaking from tradition isn’t as straightforward as flipping a switch. A few challenges came with breaking the mold:
- Our job descriptions didn’t always rise to the top of search results because we omitted the full title from the listing, which isn’t great from an SEO perspective. So if you were looking for a “marketing operations architect” gig, you’d find a bunch of listings—but most likely not ours.
- With press, it was often required to attach an outward title so reporters can attribute a quote or provide a quick description.
- We also called out leadership roles on our careers page to attract people who have experience managing others.
- Titles and career paths had never been too tied together at Gusto. However, leaving them out made people ask more about their paths. To address this, we rolled out company-wide levels to mark career milestones, and coupled those with performance development programs to encourage growth and learning.
Letting go of titles put a quiet stake in the ground. We remained open to adjusting this approach in the future, and we recognized potential hiccups to come, but our hope was to continue without titles for as long as possible. It was a constant reminder that we were on the same team, united by the same purpose.
A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn.