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This question is about the usage of staff as an adjective denoting a specific seniority level.

Research

Some companies use the word staff as an adjective to denote a level of seniority which is above senior, but below principal. I've seen it applied to engineering jobs, including but not limited to software development. The general idea is that most engineers will reach the “senior engineer” level after a few years, but a “staff engineer” is someone who has not only experience but also a certain amount of influence. This isn't necessarily a management role: it's generally about the influence the employee has on the product, rather than about how many people they direct.

Note that this has nothing to do with the much more common meaning of “staff” as a noun, where the employees of a company together make up is staff. I'm referring to a specific meaning where staff designates a small set of employees, and is only used as an adjective — an employee can be “staff engineer”, not “*a staff”.

In my experience, this usage is well-known in some milieus but unknown in others. It doesn't seem to be covered in dictionaries, for example:

  • Merriam-Webster (lists staff as an adjective without giving a meaning)
  • The Free Dictionary (gives a meaning as an adjective that encompasses all employees)
  • Cambridge (no adjective)
  • Collins (gives a meaning as an adjective that encompasses all employees)

The usage may have derived from military practice, where a staff officer is an officer who assists high-ranking officers directly. Some dictionaries list a similar meaning in non-military organizations, for example in Merriam-Webster 5a “the officers chiefly responsible for the internal operations of an institution or business” and 5d “the personnel who assist a director in carrying out an assigned task”. This is somewhat different from the usage I'm asking about: a “staff engineer”, in my experience, is usually somewhat autonomous and the source of new ideas and directions at a small scope, rather than passing on directives from above.

The usage is different in nursing, where “senior nurse” is short for “senior staff nurse” and is above “staff nurse”.

The meaning of “staff engineer” seems to be mysterious enough that a number of people spend some energy in attempting to define it, for example:

Question

How widespread is the word staff in this sense? Considering that dictionaries don't list it, is it a recent thing? Is it regional (inasmuch as this question makes sense, as it seems to be used in technology company that tend to be multinational)?

At a guess, an average English speaker would interpret “staff engineer” as “an engineer who's an employee (rather than a contractor)” rather than “an engineer who's more senior than senior but not much more”. What demographic would assume the second meaning? Is this something a typical English speaking HR employee would be familiar with, or only HR in certain fields or regions?

Do other professions (other than engineering and nursing) use staff as a seniority level, and if so how does it fit in seniority rankings?

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  • Related: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/10301/…
    – user 66974
    Mar 23, 2021 at 22:44
  • @KannE Some companies do have "senior staff engineer" above "staff engineer", but I haven't found an example where "staff engineer" is lower than "senior engineer", whereas "senior nurse" only seems to be short for "senior staff nurse" and above "staff nurse". Mar 24, 2021 at 8:52
  • Up to the 1980s at least in the UK it was common to have two grades of employee in large industrial settings whose conditions of employment were different. These were known as "manual grades" and "staff grades". Manual grades tended to be paid weekly and were often not entitled to join the pension scheme. Staff grades were paid monthly and were in the pension scheme. Lower grade staff weren't senior to manual grades, indeed tgey were often paid less than them.
    – BoldBen
    Jun 25, 2021 at 4:08
  • The Workplace might have people more conversant with these titles.
    – Lawrence
    Oct 9, 2021 at 3:07

2 Answers 2

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Job title indicators are often standardized from one company to the next, particularly at the University and or Government level. Private businesses, sometimes have their own titling system. The small collective of, "staff plus title," you are asking about at most companies would be the management.

Most likely you are looking for a designation of a term that was determined inside of a company, making it difficult to finding more information about the term designation. It is akin to family nicknames.

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    The examples I've given show that “staff” does not indicate management and that it's not specific to one particular company. Sep 9, 2021 at 7:05
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When I worked there, IBM used the ranks (IIRC) "associate", "senior associate", "staff", and "advisory". Didn't really mean anything specific.

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  • I struggle to see how one anecdote can be considered to answer the question. Sep 9, 2021 at 7:06
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    That's the point -- they're just arbitrary/random terms.
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 9, 2021 at 14:37

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