Case Study: Patagonia’s Wildly Unconventional Move

by Nov 14, 2019

At the engagement conference I spoke at recently, the Head of Performance & Talent at Patagonia, Lauren Serota, spoke about Patagonia’s initiative to remove organizational titles.

We have definitely seen a lot of movement in titles lately. You might have seen Marketing Diva instead of Marketing Assistant, for example, or Software Ninja instead Software Engineer.

Our team is no different. We’ve got people with titles like Training Guru, Future VP, and Director of Compliance, HR & Awesome.

According to Serota, Patagonia’s mission statement is, “to save our home planet,” and a hard look at this mission caused leadership to question how they might stay around for years to come to complete their important work. Specifically, would typical ol’ organizational conventions help them stick around for 100 years?

The answer to that question was a resounding no, and leadership determined that the conventional caste system of hierarchy and titles does not reflect Patagonia’s culture. After all, titles and hierarchy are by their very nature designed to keep people down, incite respect for those who have higher titles but not lower titles, and create a rewards system for loyalty to titles.

Meanwhile, Patagonia wants people to save the world. They figured world-saving was harder if they were being conventional.

Serota also mentioned that like many organizations, Patagonia is focused on creating an inclusive workplace, and so Patagonia was questioning if they could really create an inclusive work environment with titles in place that are designed to exclude and control. I thought that was an interesting point.

At the time of Serota’s presentation, this was just being rolled out, so she didn’t have anything to report on the outcome as they are working out the kinks.

So far they’ve determined that people will now identify themselves by department but not title. Bonuses will not be linked to title changes or promotions up, but rather to personal and professional achievements. And, leadership will be linked to personal behavior, not titles.

Removing titles is not without its challenges. For example, people are wondering how to identify themselves on LinkedIn or on their resumes when they move on. Serota’s response is to use their old titles.

I also wonder if employees who have worked their whole life to achieve a certain level and title are frustrated. It might be hard to go from Executive Vice President of Sales to plain ol’ Sales.

I wondered something similar when this guy decided to pay a minimum wage of $70,000. I thought the people who’d worked hard to get to $120,000 might be frustrated that the $40,000 people just got a $30,000 increase. It’s been a bumpy road for that company but seems to be working out.

It’s certainly an interesting social experiment. Curious, what do you think about removing titles? What benefits, consequences, and challenges do you see?  Let’s discuss on LinkedIn.

(Plug for our Future VP! She writes many of our enewsletters, so if you like them, vote for her for Employee of the Year here! You’ll have to scroll down about halfway.)

About Catherine Mattice

Catherine Mattice, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is President of consulting and training firm, Civility Partners, and has been successfully providing programs in workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007. Her clients include Fortune 500’s, the military, several universities and hospitals, government agencies, small businesses and nonprofits. She has published in a variety of trade magazines and has appeared several times on NPR, FOX, NBC, and ABC as an expert, as well as in USA Today, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, and more. Catherine is Past-President of the Association for Talent Development (ATD), San Diego Chapter and teaches at National University. In his book foreword, Ken Blanchard called her book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic.” She recently released a second book entitled, SEEKING CIVILITY: How Leaders, Managers and HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying.

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