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Choosing Between Large and Small Companies

Does company size really matter in a tough job market?

By Kim R. Wells

It was once said, "It's not the size of the dog in the fight that really matters, but the size of the fight in the dog."

Similarly, when choosing a company to work for, should you judge the organization based solely on its size and power? Or should the company's heart and spirit count as well? And in the face of the slumping economy, shrinking job opportunities and student loans hovering over your head-do you even have the luxury of seeking a company that fits your goals and needs or should you just take the first job offer that comes along?

These are just a few of the questions that you may find yourself asking as you confront one of the toughest job markets in over a decade. But fear not, excellent job opportunities do exist in 2003. The rules of the game, however, have changed considerably, and the needs of employers have changed as well. If you're determined to find employment with a company that fits your particular needs, you are going to have to take some extra time to weight the pros and cons of different types of potential employers. But all your hard work will pay off because in the end it's not just getting a job that matters-it's getting a job that can fulfill you both financially and personally.

In 2003 the future is not what it used to be. As a result of the tragic chain of events including the terrorist attacks of September 11th, unprecedented reports of corporate scandal and the over two million corporate layoffs in less than two years-the economy and entire employment landscape have changed. In an effort to adjust and meet the demands of our new economy, many employers have restructured their financial, structural and human resource strategies, which has resulted in scaled down recruitment initiatives and company lay-offs.

The stage in 2003 is set for one of the most competitive job markets in recent history, with new graduates and seasoned professionals both competing for limited job opportunities. In order to succeed in this new job market, you will have to invest quality time in understanding the changing needs of employers, refining your job search strategies and tools, and ultimately deciding which prospective companies are a strong match for your talents and interests.

Choose Your Work Environment Wisely

There is a saying in the world of boxing, "Champions are not made in the ring, but merely recognized there." Just as the great boxing champions of our time carefully orchestrated their careers by selecting and preparing for every opponent, you too will need to carefully build your career by choosing the right companies that support your goals and interest and provide you with the best possible environment to showcase your unique talents.

When successfully matched with a company, you will be more comfortable, confident and motivated to achieve. When accepting a position with an employer, it's critical that you do your research and understand the company that you're interviewing with. Think of it as an investment in your future. When you select a position in a company that is a good match for you the odds are you will perform at a higher level. This will impress your managers, bosses and clients and potentially lead to promotion opportunities, a higher salary, bonuses, visibility and favor in your organization.

The risk of accepting employment with a company where your unique abilities and talents are not valued by the employer is that you could slowly become a real-life Dilbert-always feeling beat up and frustrated. If you're not careful, frustration at work can also cause you to develop poor work habits and negative coping mechanisms-such as a defensive attitude, taking long breaks and delivering poor quality work. And in the worst-case scenario, you may find yourself being fired, which would force you to start the job search process all over!

Is all of the drama and loss of income, confidence and time really worth it when a little bit of additional research and time may have assisted you in making a better choice to begin with? Remember, although times may be tough, you still have to protect your interests and make choices that support your dreams and your future.

The good news is that even in this tough job market both large and small companies are still in the market for talented graduates. According to a recent survey released by the Society of Human Resource Management and Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business, both large and small companies still consider it a top priority to maintain a strong and competitive work force, even in the midst of the current sluggish economy. As the ink is still wet on pink slips being sent out by many employers, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that there will be over 5.8 million new employment opportunities created over the next six years. Much of the growth in the job market in the near future will be the direct result of the U.S. war on terrorism, which is predicted to generate close to $2.5 billion in defense spending and increase career opportunities in fields such as engineering, computer science and information systems, security and law enforcement, and scientific research and development. Other predicted employment trends will include an increase in the demand for professionals in nursing, residential health care, government, education and general office administration.

It is difficult to completely capture the dynamic structure and practices of all large and small companies. The following profiles provide a general overview of commonly reported trends and practices at both large and small employers and are meant to provide a basic point of reference when comparing work environments.

Common Trends and Practices in Large Companies

Large companies generally employ 2,000 or more employees. They currently employ approximately 50% of all American workers, according to the latest data reported by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Hiring: The hiring process in large companies tends to be highly structured, regulated by company and federal hiring policies and initially coordinated by members of the organization's human resources office. Hiring at large companies often requires completing a standardized job application form and may include standardized skills testing, drug testing and, in some cases, a background check.

Following the standard interviewing and screening process, large companies will usually recommend top candidates to managers and key department members to continue the process of further evaluation. At the department level the candidate is interviewed to evaluate their compatibility with the position and their ability to fit the expectations of the hiring manager and members of the staff. The hiring manager heavily influences hiring decisions, however, the human resources office may require that the hiring manage justify his/her decision for selecting a candidate and also to justify why he/she did not select other candidates.

Compensation: Over 80% of large companies tend to offer health care packages to their employees. Employees at large companies also tend to receive competitive benefits packages that usually include vacation time, sick leave, opportunities for formal professional development training and access to tuition assistance programs. Popular trends would also seem to indicate that larger companies commonly offer higher starting salaries to new employees than smaller companies.

Working Environment: Larger companies tend to have a more structured and slower work pace than small companies. Promotions, raises and bonuses are usually tied to the financial performance of the company and to individual performance.

Historically, larger employers were believed to provide a strong sense of job security, however, this belief is beginning to shift in light of the current lay-offs trends in larger companies.

The common firing process in larger organizations is commonly initiated by an employee's direct supervisor, yet the process is closely regulated by objective human resources representatives to ensure that the process is fairly facilitated to provide a reasonable attempt to reconcile differences and also insure that all legal employment guidelines are followed to avoid future liabilities or lawsuits against the company.

"Large companies provide employees with a variety of internal career mobility and advancement options without having to leave the company," according to Connie Gonzalez, a college relations coordinator for Abbot Laboratories. According to Gonzalez, Abbott employs over 70,000 employees worldwide and can offer interested employees the opportunity to transfer and live in various geographical locations in the United States and worldwide.

Communications in large companies tend to be highly structured and hierarchical in nature. Interaction tends to be most frequent between department co-workers and clients and the department manager. Interaction with top leadership in the company and across departments or functions is not common unless for internal service areas to employees.

Employees in large companies tend to be less loyal to the overall organization, yet may have higher levels of loyalty to their individual department, supervisor and staff members.

Common frustrations reported in large companies include feelings of limited input of lower-level employees on important corporate decisions, limited diversity in corporate leadership, disproportionately higher salaries of executives and managers and perceived "push-back" of lower-level employees wanting to try new and innovative processes.

Large companies tend to be attractive employment environments for new professionals who want to enter into an organization that tends to have more overall security, higher starting salaries, more structure, more funding available for formal professional development programs, better benefits packages and multiple internal advancement opportunities without having to reenter into the job market.

Common Trends and Practices in Small Companies

Small companies are generally defined as companies that employ up to 500 staff members. Small companies employ approximately 35% of the American work force, and according to a recent Small Business Administration report, up to 75% of all new jobs are currently being created in small businesses. Small businesses tend to be fast-paced, and built on strong communications and relationships between employees, leadership and clients.

The interviewing process at small companies tends to be less structured than larger companies, and usually is lead by hiring managers and team members and can also involve senior leadership such as the company president or CEO. Candidates at small companies may have to have background checks administered depending on the nature of the company and its client base. Most recruits are required to provide a resume and may be asked to complete a generic application form for the hiring manager.

Small companies tend to hire new employees who are generalists in their fields, yet have the savvy, skills and leadership capabilities to lead a wide variety of projects or initiatives.

Employees of small companies often report that their involvement in multiple projects enables them to gain excellent experience in developing multiple skill sets.

Starting salaries at smaller companies tend to be lower than larger companies, and the benefit packages tend to be less competitive. According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, only 68% of small companies offer health care packages to their employees.

Smaller companies often do not have the comprehensive training and tuition assistance programs like those offered in the larger companies, although there are unique opportunities to receive specific training when funding is available or to develop needed capabilities for specific contracts or internal requirements. Cross-training and skill development is also commonplace as employees often work on matrix teams with professionals from diverse backgrounds and experience levels.

Managing multiple responsibilities in a fast paced environment is critical to success in a small company, and those that are not able to quickly adapt and adjust to changing demands and responsibilities may be quickly overwhelmed. Structure and operating procedures at small companies are known to be less formal. Rigid structure is sometimes perceived as limiting and even counter productive and can be perceived as a threat to the team's ability to design and execute innovative initiatives.

Employees at small companies often have a direct voice in many company and project issues. It is common for employees in small companies to have a personal relationship and continuous interaction with members of the senior leadership.

Because of more open channels of communication, top employees tend to have a greater impact than in larger organizations. Strong performers are highly visible and often recognized within the organization. Small company environments that encourage employee participation, relationship building and interaction with different level emploees within the company, often have workers who are more loyal to the company than in larger organizations. According to Suzanne Delchamps, a corporate recruiter for Ball Aerospace Technologies Corporation, a small aerospace engineering firm, "Many people enjoy working for Ball, not only because of the wonderful career opportunities, competitive salaries and benefits, but because of the positive environment and working relationships we have within the company."

Small companies tend to be a strong fit for new professionals who are interested in a fast track career where they can be more visible and make an immediate impact on the organization. Employees in smaller companies are more involved with company leadership and have more input in organizational issues. This environment encourages workers to express their ideas and interests with a diverse team of professionals. Employees at small companies tend to multitask on different projects with different teams and enjoy an environment rich with numerous challenges. Small companies also tend to be attractive to employees who are interested in starting their own business in the future because of the exposure to all levels of a business.

In many cases, small business starting salaries and benefits packages are not as strong as larger companies, but they offer an employee more opportunities to receive personal (and sometime financial) bonuses for performance recognition.

The opportunity to move up the corporate ladder quickly is also high.

In the end it is not so much the size of the employer that really matters, but the quality of the work experience that matters most. As in all human endeavors, you will find positive and negative experiences in most companies regardless of size. The goal is to choose an environment that will be the best possible investment in your career development and will provide you with a launching pad into a quality career that is productive and satisfying.

Kim R. Wells is the director of the Career Services Office at Howard University, Washington, D.C. Mr. Wells has over 15 years of experience in performance consulting and career development services.


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