Merger mania has led to title chaos at some banks.

As banks combine so do groups of executives who may hold identical titles but different levels of responsibility.

Conversely, executives may hold different titles from those with the same level of authority at a merger partner.

"A lot of hot air has crept into the titles at some banks," said John C. Wilson, a managing director of financial services at Korn/Ferry International. "I've recruited people out of organizations that have had a hard time adjusting to a client calling them one thing when they used to be called something else more important-sounding."

The bigger the bank, the bigger the challenge, experts said. Sorting out hierarchies gets tricky when merging organizations are spread across several states and have developed different ways of signifying executives' regional responsibilities.

BankAmerica Corp., which merged Sept. 30 with NationsBank Corp. to form the nation's second-biggest banking company, is sorting out who will be called what.

Liam E. McGee, president of the company's Southern California region, said in a recent interview that the new bank is trying to simplify its title structure.

"There's an effort going forward to create something we can all live with for the next several years," Mr. McGee said. The company expects to complete the process early next year, he said.

When employees may already feel insecure about their futures, it can become an emotionally charged issue.

A bank risks devaluing the executive vice president title, for example, if it awards it to too many.

When Union Bank and Bank of California merged in 1996, the focus was on melding the banks' business lines, which were organized differently, said Paul E. Fearer, director of human resources at San Francisco-based Union Bank of California, which is majority-owned by Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi Ltd. Leaders of these units were then selected.

Because the banks had similar structures for vice presidents, senior vice presidents, and executive vice presidents and each functioned primarily in California, figuring out compensation and titles was relatively simple.

There were some difficult decisions, however, and often the maintenance of employee motivation and morale played a role in determining what titles were awarded.

"If there was a debate on what title an executive would get, we were inclined to go with the higher title," Mr. Fearer said. "We may have erred on the side of the employee sometimes."

Richard A. Leweke, executive vice president and director of human resources at California Federal Bank, a unit of Golden State Bancorp., argued that this approach is risky.

"We try to be extremely consistent," Mr. Leweke said. "As soon as we become arbitrary and make some allowances, we create a situation internally that is difficult to explain to other employees."

The thrift has established a set of job descriptions, and when it integrates an acquisition, as it recently did with Glendale Federal Bank, it carefully evaluates the incoming set of titles to see how they stack up against their own.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.