Words mean a lot at Gusto. Lobby signs, hashtags, values — thoughtful language creates a dialogue that helps us magnify the things we believe in. But right now, it’s the absence of words that’s shaping our culture.
Last summer 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 culture. Yes, we knew they helped with role clarity, but they also were casting an unnecessary shadow. When someone mentions their title 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, Eddie Kim 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 are not needed at Gusto today. They’re not a measurement of someone’s contributions. They don’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. A few conversations and a company-wide communication later, our titleless 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 so hard in their career to achieve. But soon after the announcement, replies started streaming in like, “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.” In fact, 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; the snacks were way more controversial.
How we went titleless
Being title-free was part of Gusto from the very beginning. Back when we were ZenPayroll, we referred to our positions based on our team names. When we went through our growth spurt last summer, titles took on a life of their own. A long list emerged, and candidates would routinely wonder about the difference between them all. So we asked ourselves: How can we make the connections between people more meaningful than the names we call each other? How can we get back to our titleless roots?
To help us explore the possibility, we had a lot of internal discussions. Does it matter if we say a role is senior or junior? Do we have to differentiate at this stage between a backend and frontend developer? Understanding these nuances were important to us. Then we chatted with other companies who had done this to see what they learned. We started to learn that for small companies with a few dozen employees, forgoing titles was a fairly common practice. But as they grew, somehow titles snuck back into the picture. While this decision makes sense for Gusto today, we leave open the option to revisit this in the future. We know that cultures evolve, and responding to our company’s needs as we grow is important.
The most immediate change is taking place in the recruiting realm. Our hiring managers are seeing incredible people come through — people who never would’ve applied before because all the titles were preventing them from taking the leap. During the research phase, many companies had mentioned that they felt like they were attracting the wrong kinds of candidates when they had titles. By not having them in the first place, you can filter those people out. That was a really fascinating premise for us to explore. If we’re truly a “no-egos” culture, we can zero in on the people who are more likely to thrive here. Fewer candidates are coming through, but we’re talking to more people who are better aligned.
Going titleless has also impacted us on a psychological level. Now someone isn’t a senior customer care advocate, they’re simply on the care team. That slight shift in wording captures the collaborative nature of what we’re trying to accomplish here. Gusties are excited about being a part of something bigger than themselves, and our vocabulary reflects that.
What we’re learning
Breaking from tradition isn’t as straightforward as flipping a switch. A few challenges come with breaking the mold:
- Right now, our job descriptions don’t always rise to the top of search results because we omit the full title from the listing, which isn’t great from an SEO perspective. So if you’re looking for a “marketing operations architect” gig, you’ll find a bunch of listings — but most likely not the one at Gusto. And we’ll have to revisit that. This is something that’s working for us right now, but we recognize that as we grow, the pros and cons will weigh differently against each other.
- With press, it’s often required to attach an outward title to quickly clear things up when they’re trying to attribute a quote or provide a quick description.
- We also call out leadership roles on our careers page to attract people who have experience managing others.
4. Titles and career paths have never been too tied together at Gusto. However, leaving them out has made people ask more about their paths. To address this, we’re in the process of rolling out company-wide levels to mark career milestones, and coupling that with performance development programs to encourage growth and learning. When that launches, we’ll keep an eye on how these elements intersect.
Letting go of titles has been our own quiet stake in the ground. We remain open about this approach in the future, and recognize potential hiccups to come. But we hope we can continue this approach for as long as possible. It’s a constant reminder that we’re on the same team, united by the same purpose. As we say here at Gusto, #OneTeamOneDream.
This story was originally published here on LinkedIn.