will working for a small company hold me back professionally?

A reader writes:

I work for a small organization. There are currently 10 of us. I like the work I do but am on the lookout for new positions, as the organization is looking to merge with another company at some point and I might be out of a job then anyway.

I had an interview a few weeks ago and I mentioned offhandedly that the company is small. The woman I was interviewing with wrote down that there were 10 people in the company, and underlined it many times. I noticed, so I quickly followed up with “even though it’s a small organization, we are a consulting firm so I work with dozens of clients at any given time,” and made a mental note to never mention company size again.

Fast forward to last week, where I was asked by a recruiter what the bonus structure is at my current company, and I said that we don’t have one. He was taken aback by that, so I said “it’s a small firm, so no bonuses,” and he asked how many people there are. I hesitated for a moment before being honest, since it would take about 30 seconds of research to see the staff listings on our website.

So, does size really matter? Am I hurting my chances at getting another job because the company is so small? I’ve worked for very large companies in the past, and can’t really see how a small company would be damaging. I work with the same number of people (probably even more in my current company, since there are fewer people to do the work) and am busier than I have ever been. I’ve been here for 3 years, and would like to move on at some point, but part of me thinks I should push to leave faster, since staying here long-term might work against me. Any thoughts?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 106 comments… read them below }

  1. Nea*

    In my experience, working in a small company is much, much better for one’s career because then you have opportunities to slide into new tasks and duties, whereas in larger companies they’d hire someone for task x and someone else for task y.

    1. Feathers McGraw*

      Exactly. My time at a small company gave me more varied experience, more stretch projects etc – and to me working in a small company suggests someone may be more resourceful and flexible. As Alison says: more hats.

    2. anon for this*

      Bingo. I completely agree. You can get a broader range of experience, often more quickly, than you can in a larger organization.

    3. Long Time Reader First Time Poster*

      Yes. I often emphasize that working in a small company allowed me to wear a lot of different hats.

      It’s been my personal experience that the bigger the company, the narrower the job role, and it’s actually my preference to work for a smaller company now.

    4. BRR*

      I think it depends but right now I work for a much smaller organization than at my previous job and for what I do, it’s exactly like you say. I’m currently doing a, b, and c while at my previous employer I only did a. I’ve also taken on higher-level responsibilities because I’m a department of one (the downside is I have to do very basic tasks as well). When I decide to leave move on, my resume will be well populated to move into a variety of roles.

      1. Julie B.*

        Alternately to all of this, if you really want to focus your career on Just One Thing (which in my techie world, people want to do), a large company usually has the resources and ability to accommodate you, because as everyone above has pointed out, they can hire individually for task a, task b, task c, and on and on.

        1. Nea*

          In my case, I started out in small companies so that when I was ready to make a jump to a big one I had enough experience in a, b, and c (and d and e) to know that B was where I wanted my career to go. It was invaluable.

      2. Kira*

        For a differing perspective: I started out small and certainly appreciate the benefits like learning different areas. When I started thinking about which aspects I most enjoyed, it was hard to move into that because I was competing with applicants with more targeted experience. I think it was only an issue because I was switching fields, though.

    5. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      My experience precisely. Working for a small company where everyone wears lots of hats has given me the chance to work on RCRA/Superfund projects, NEPA compliance, natural resources, solid waste, and so on.

    6. AnotherAlison*

      I’m sure this is highly field dependent and organization dependent, but I have found working in a large organization to offer a lot of growth opportunities, and to be beneficial for my career.

      I’ve only worked for two companies, but both were top 5 in their fields. I’m in engineering and construction. The type of work my company can do is drastically different from what a small firm could do. Firms of a certain size provide the financial backing and expertise that a small firm could not provide in this field. We have built first-of-a-kind facilities and industry-selected projects of the year. People can completely change from working on power projects to working on oil/gas/chem to working on data centers, and we have projects at different cap ex sizes, so you can also move around from being a project engineer on something big to a project manager on something small, or take a detour through a special assignment (like back when we implemented a new ERP system).

      No one ever really questions your experience, either. Small local firms as well as large national/multinational corporations know your company’s reputation.

      1. Mariellen*

        THIS. I do occasional hiring in my management role in IT at a F100 company. I’m going to pay much more attention to the resumes from folks working at other F500 companies – knowing that someone has worked in that size of company/environment brings along an assumed skill set that you gain by working in a large firm. The person who has worked in other large companies is likely going to have an easier time onboarding, etc, than someone who has only worked for a company with only 20 people

    7. Formica Dinette*

      This has been true for me too. The only downside has been that at some point, there is no more room for me to grow and I need to move to another company. Overall, the pros have far outweighed the cons.

    8. Stellaaaaa*

      Working at a small business is great for learning new skills and expanding/inflating your role, but IMO your best bet is doing 3-4 years there and then taking your new skills to a bigger company. Small companies are much more likely to become toxic, they don’t often have proper HR, they’re subject to whatever weird “outsider” mentalities are held by the owner, and they don’t need to legally comply with many of the protections that many people on this site take for granted. You wouldn’t be singing the praises of small business if your company’s size prevented you from getting FMLA for maternity leave and then you were “let go” for prolonged absences. Somewhere along the line it was decided that small business and enterprise were important to the American national identity (do we all really want to work for a huge corporation?) so these compromises were made, but they almost all uniformly suck for employees.

      1. Sherry*

        Not only do small companies offer limited HR support, but sometimes your job description can be ill-defined. That’s good when it lets you shape the role to suit your skills and interests. But that ambiguity can feel confusing or stressful, too.

        1. Snork Maiden*

          I agree with both of you as a 10 year employee at a sub 10 person firm. Leadership is very very important at this size as there is often not a framework to fall back on.

          I don’t even know what my job title is – I’ve never had a formal assessment or yearly review, and requesting a meeting to discuss my duties and title would be met with laughter or confusion. Since I’ve never been officially assigned duties or defined, it’s easy to acquire new ones without a lot of effort – but these can also be taken away on a whim by management, too.

      2. paul*

        plus there can much more limited chances to advance; like we’ve got 20 odd employees. It goes me, my boss, CEO.

        I mean…not much room.

        1. Detective Amy Santiago*

          That all depends on whether or not you *want* to advance. I am perfectly content in a support role.

    9. Mike C.*

      I’ve found the opposite – the smaller org simply didn’t have a place for current employees with growing skillsets while the larger org not only has places for them, but policies toward developing people further.

      I think this goes to show that it really depends on the company, large or small.

    10. Stranger than fiction*

      While I agree that job descriptions are usually more rigid and cut and dry in large organizations, I’ve worked for mostly small organizations and noticed when I’m job searching, large orgs never respond to my resume. It seems I’ve pigeon holed myself. But at the same time, I don’t really care anymore, since I seem to fit in in small orgs. I like my current job because I wear many hats and am gaining diverse experience.

    11. Sfigato*

      That’s why I moved from a large company to a small one. There are trade-offs, though.

    12. Al Lo*

      I work for an arts non-profit that’s a weird hybrid. Compared to other community arts orgs, we’re huge. Compared to other professional arts orgs that are somewhat adjacent to us, but not exactly the same, we’re slightly small, but reasonably on par. Compared to a corporate environment, we’re tiny.

      However, I’ve gotten all kinds of experience that I wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere. I’m 35, and am already one of the senior voices in my organization, in terms of responsibility and influence. I get to sit in on policy meetings, my opinions hold a lot of sway with the CEO, I’ve influenced hiring and firing, and I’m one of 3 senior managers under the CEO who oversee a lot of our day to day operations. The founding CEO is looking to retire, and I’ve been a part of her succession plan, and have gained responsibility quickly while taking over some of her duties.

      Would people see all of that if I were to move to a larger company? Maybe, maybe not, but I’ve gained some pretty invaluable experience and been able to take initiative (the good way!) to take on jobs that interest me.

    13. Webdev*

      Agreed. And this is one of the main reasons I’m about to quit my Big Fancy Corporate Job™ and go back to a tiny 10-person agency – I miss wearing all the hats and having varied duties outside of my core tasks. Here at Big Corporate Job everyone has their lane and stays in it and there’s zero room to stray because someone else already does those other tasks.

      1. Snowflake*

        I am possibly moving from a small company to a larger one in the near future and I am going to miss some of the “do all the tasks” mentality of the small business – among my many responsibilities is depositing payments when our “department of one” finance person is on vacation – it’s kind of fun to have that responsibility once every 6 months or so.

    14. emma2*

      I was going to say this exactly. I work in consulting and this has been my experience. However, I can see in some consulting circles, people putting more emphasis on brand names.

    15. designbot*

      My experience has been that small companies are great for young staff to get a broad knowledge of the field and be able to try their hand at many different things. It encourages flexibility and self-reliance because if you don’t do the thing, who will? On the other hand large companies are great when you get to the point of wanting to have some authorship of your own work, as small companies in my field frequently have an owner who micromanages every item that goes out the door while big companies just don’t have that option.

  2. Julie B.*

    AAM’s answer at Inc. really nails it. I’ve been in my industry for 25 years. Only two of those years have been spent at large firm because I cannot stand the bureaucracy and pigeon-holing that comes with the large companies in my industry. I love smaller firms because I wear many hats and have much flexibility in what I do. But, then again, with the smaller firms, I work on smaller projects that are pretty low-profile. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t important, but you’ll never see one of my projects in a national magazine or on the news. Larger firms may also be able to offer more upward mobility – simply because of size they have the need for more managers, VP’s etc. But, they may expect obscene amounts of overtime and dedication to achieve that.

    It’s all a balance of what you want out of life.

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      I swear it’s just a coincidence we used a few of the same terms. I posted before I saw yours. :)

  3. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

    What Alison says about how much less bureaucracy is exactly right. I went from a large company to a small one (about 10 people, an IT consulting firm) to working for a university. Even though you have worked for a large company before, just be prepared for the amount of hassle it takes to get stuff done when you go back to a large company. I know it threw me off at first.

    Also, be prepared for a lack of flexibility on schedules and things like that. That was the most difficult thing for me.

    1. Spoonie*

      The lack of schedule flexibility isn’t true for all large companies. I’m at a multinational company, and so long as my work is done and my hours are worked, I can (within reason) work whatever schedule I’d like. My projects also require a variety of skills, and my supervisor and I coordinate and meet regularly. It’s actually refreshing coming from my old job where I was never certain where I stood on anything.

    2. PlainJane*

      Sometimes the opposite can be true though. When you’re the only person in your small company that knows how to do something, you may not get a lot of schedule flexibility. You just have to be there. I watched my mother struggle with that for years. So many of the pros and cons are situational, based on the personality and desires of the employee, the culture of the company, and the skill and decency of the managers involved.

    3. Kyrielle*

      Some of that just depends on the company. At $PreviousJob I had a lot of schedule flexibility…until we were bought by another company and then I didn’t. We less-than-doubled size, and both were medium-size organizations (large enough for FMLA to apply, but not ginormous).

      At $CurrentJob we are multi-national and have thousands of employees, and my schedule is as flexible as the needs of my team and boss allow – as it happens, pretty darned flexible.

  4. Jan Levinson*

    I used to work at a huge, multinational company, and now work for a small, close-knit company. From my experience, I’ve had exponentially more growth, and learned SO much more at my small company than I did at my old, larger company. The training was more individualized, I am given clearer goals, I get to wear many hats (which I enjoy), and my supervisor gets to see my work firsthand.

    In short, my experience is SO much more valuable at my current company than it was at my previous company. In general, I don’t think it is damaging to your career to work at a small company. I think as long as your express to interviewers why the experience at your small company is valuable, you will be just fine!

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      Agreed 100%. The stint I did at Big Corporate Conglomerate was miserable. I very much prefer small business settings where I get to do a lot of different things and have more of a direct impact on the success of the company.

      1. Jan Levinson*

        Exactly. I love being somewhere where I feel like I’m making an impact – which, I believe is the case with most small businesses.

        I, too, was miserable at my Big Corporate job and honestly don’t feel like I gained even a spec of valuable experience the year I was there.

  5. Dan*

    As usual, it depends on the company. I’m much happier at my 7,000 person non profit than I was at my 150 person “for profit”.

    My 7k non profit has much more variety and availability in terms of projects that we can work on, and it’s easy to move around. When projects dry up, we have a much more stable source of funding.

    Depending on what you’re looking for, and depending on the company’s mission and what not, larger companies can offer more stability at a corporate level. My last job (small business) hit the skids when they sold out to a larger company and lost all of the contracts they had with the federal government, which were contingent upon the company retaining their small business status.

    My current org, a non profit (7k staff) isn’t in the money making game, so mergers and acquisitions aren’t part of the day to day life around here. As far as I can tell, the last major corporate shakeup we had was 20 years ago (1996).

    BTW, I know the original letter is old, but “small business” has no bearing on bonus payouts. My current org (7k people) doesn’t pay them, and my previous job at a small business did. Bonus payouts are all about corporate philosophy.

    1. Morning Glory*

      How many people are at your current org? It would have been helpful to include that info :)

    2. BBBizAnalyst*

      I agree. I’m at a 6000 person organization now. I’ve worked at a well known multinational org and a tiny one in the same industry. Tiny one was okay but the lack of growth was stifling because there was no next step. Large 100k+ had some of the strangest people I’ve ever met who hid behind how inefficient everything was.

      I think the current org I’m at now is the sweet spot. I quite frankly don’t want to be the jack of all trades so I get a lot of low hanging (boring) reporting and data from our offshore team. That allows me to focus on high level analytical projects and more face time with my clients. I also have the autonomy to lead projects the way I want to since I cover an entire region.

      1. Dan*

        Quora tends to be tech-heavy, and one of the questions that comes up a lot is “should I go to a startup or Microsoft, Google, FaceBook, or other Large Tech Company.” One of the downsides to being a jack-of-all-trades is that one often becomes master-of-none. A lot of times, Quora advice is go to go a Large Tech Company, become very good at a few things (by transferring departments every couple of years) and then walk into a start up with a good pedigree and a better shot at naming your own price.

        For me, at large company, I spend my time on technically oriented tasking, and don’t get side tracked by budgets and project management stuff.

  6. Persephone Mulberry*

    Most of my career has been spent in small companies, wearing many hats, and I’ve often thought that I should start looking into moving to a larger organization *because* I got really tired of being the Jill of All Trades.

    My last move I still landed me in a tiny company (7 employees) but I’m pretty deliberate about squashing that Super Helper instinct and not volunteering to take on tasks too far outside of the job they hired me for – e.g. I don’t answer the general phone line; I’m selective about which help tickets I answer; and when I sat down with my boss to talk about being bored a few months back, I didn’t offer to take anything off of someone else’s plate except my immediate supervisor’s, which kept the focus on how I could expand the responsibilities within my role, rather than expanding the definition of my role.

    1. Allypopx*

      That’s inspiring. Whenever my next move is I’m approaching it with that mindset.

    2. Sunshine on a cloudy day*

      The first part of my career was spent in smaller firms (nothing larger 75 people), and while I’m greatful for the experience and getting to wear many different hats (in particular, it was great in my first role because I got to figure out what I like/dislike and where my personal strengths/weaknesses usually lie), for me it got old really fast. It got to the point where I felt like I couldn’t focus on the core of my positions because I was too busy running around trying to be IT/reception/finding proper supplies/office cleaner/party planner/HR (when there was no HR).

      Part of it was a Super Helper instinct, for sure, but part of it was a legitimate lack of resources. If something needs to get done that is core to my role, and the only way to get it done on time is to play IT person, well I had to play IT person.

      I’m in a large organization now, where I feel like I can focus on the core of my role and actually have had the chance to expand my role because I’m not bogged down by all the little things I felt like I was left to deal with solo.

    3. Dan*

      Yup. At my current job, promotions are often given based on “who you know”. When they put your name up for promotion, you *must* be known to other people on the review panel, or it ain’t gonna fly. (Note that I didn’t say whose ass you kissed, I mean “who you know” literally.)

      For the first two years I’ve worked here, ALL of my work went through Person X. I recently told my current boss that for the forseeable future, I’m most interested in working with people I don’t know, and will try and reduce the amount of new work I do for Person X, for better or for worse.

      I also think that when it comes time for finding a new job, it’s harder to get one if you’ve been jack-of-all-trades. You need to walk in talking about things you’ve accomplished, and how you’ve kicked at ass what you do. Being a “juggler” isn’t going to do you any favors unless you’re applying for that role at the next job.

  7. Cis/Het/Male 5'8"*

    I’ve never heard the question “Does size really matter?” in this context.

    As a counterpoint, I just went from working in a small company to a Fortune 100. I had a great experience at the small company, but I ran into two problems.

    First, I had a personality conflict with another employee to the point where I didn’t think I could work with this person any more and told my manager and she said, “Well, this is a small company so I can’t move you to another department.” That was the main factor for choosing to look for employment elsewhere.

    Second, my manager admitted that there was little room for growth. I’d get a few salary bumps and a “promotion” from Jr. Teapot Engineer to Sr. Teapot Engineer, but I’d essentially just be doing the same job since the day I was hired.

    Has anyone else noticed any other disadvantages in working for a smaller company?

    1. AnotherHRPro*

      In my experience (employee experiences may vary/this is only one person’s point of view)… :)

      Disadvantages of smaller companies: some hesitation to terminate poor performance, knowledge/skills can be broad but not deep, not as much focus on long term strategy, fewer promotion opportunities, generally lower compensation and benefits

      Pros of smaller companies: ability to learn a great deal, flexibility in your role, opportunities to experiment and try new ideas, less oversight and approvals, fewer rules & policies, more “taking a chance” on people, less pressure to deliver/advance/compete with others

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Agree except for pay. My pay has been way better at smaller companies (except one) than the one large corp. i worked for. At the big corp, they met my previous job’s pay despite my telling them I hadn’t had a raise in tw years, and then at review time, I got the infamous “meets ir exceeds expectations” in everything yet a tiny 2% raise.

    2. Manders*

      The small companies I’ve worked for have had multiple members of the same family in management. Sometimes that works out ok, but sometimes it’s a disaster.

      I do like wearing a lot of hats, but I’m ready to take some hats off now that I know they don’t fit me quite right.

      1. Cis/Het/Male 5'8"*

        The last small company I worked for was family owned and everyone in the industry knew it. At trade shows and networking events people would come up and say, “Oh, you work for that company the Smith Boys started a few years ago.”

        Also, the PMO Manager, my boss, was married to the senior enterprise architect. The VP of engineering was the brother-in-law of the QA Manager. And everyone working there knew someone who already worked there prior to being hired, except for myself and 2 other people.

    3. Sherry*

      My small-medium company didn’t have a lot of printed policies on things like personal leave, tuition reimbursement, etc. You could still make arrangements with management, but their was a weird resistance to putting policies in print.

      Also, a lot of big companies do a good job of internal communities. My company of 50-60 had no internal communications, and company info (who retired, how we did last quarter, etc.) was usually shared in an incredibly haphazard manner. Everyone felt “out of the loop.”

    4. Jan Levinson*

      You know, I actually had the opposite experience in terms of salary. My old Big Corporate Job was notorious for never giving raises or bonuses. I’ve been at my current Small Business Job for almost a year and a half, and received a 13% raise at the end of 2016 (and also started off at a higher salary than I was making at my old corporate job). It was easy to vouch for myself when my supervisor and big boss were seeing my work firsthand (due to the small office size). At my old Big Corporate Job, I felt like my work got lost in a big sea. I don’t think I EVER could have negotiated that type of raise, there.

  8. Anon Anon*

    I’ve worked at both large (5k plus) and small organizations (50 staff or so), and I felt that my career progression was much better in the smaller organization. The smaller organization wasn’t afraid to create a new role for me to keep me, and I found that the raises were more generous.

    However, I do believe in some industries there is such a thing as too small. We have many people who apply for senior roles at our 50 person small organization that have come from organizations where they are the sole staff member or one of two or three staff. In those cases, typically we find that the candidate has an inaccurate view of their skills, largely because they haven’t been in a larger organization (there is a marked difference between someone coming from an organization say with 5-7 employees than one that has 1-3 staff).

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      Oh good point. Where my bf works now (150 ish employees) the skill/experience level is low with most his coworkers, yet a lot of them have inflated titles. (one reason he’s job hunting)

      1. Anon Anon*

        We find we get a lot of people who had the title of Executive Director and were the sole staff member who simply don’t have the skills to function as a senior staff member at a larger organization.

        Title inflation is a pretty big issue in our industry with very small organizations. But I also think there is a big difference between very small organizations and smaller organizations (50-200 staff).

  9. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

    A few random downsides, for me at least:

    – Small companies can’t ride out bumps as easily. Contract gets protested, fire hits the plant, supply chain gets fubared? You’re probably closer to the bone than Enormouscorp.

    – Benefits can be HOLYCRIKEYBALLS EXPENSIVE. My health plan is $550…..per pay period. Luckily, my wife’s public school district benefits just kicked in. Small groups mean big premiums.

    – Yes, everyone wears lots of hats. Sometimes this means that someone wears a hat not sized for their noggin.

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      Also, the many hats thing means, sometimes, that an employee won’t get let go when it’s time to be let go. “We can’t let Lucinda go, she’s in charge of tea quality assurance!”


      1. Anon Anon*

        I agree. I think this is the biggest downfall of a smaller organization. That and I think the work loads tend to be higher.

        1. Partly Cloudy*

          I went from a 3,500-person organization to a <100-person organization a couple of years ago, and originally my work load was actually much lower because it was so much easier to do what I do for a drastically smaller and singly located population.

          So hats have been added, which keeps things interesting for me as sometimes it takes a little tugging and smushing to get them to fit. I really enjoy two of my new hats, which have nothing to do with my previous skill set, although swapping hats quickly does get a little frustrating sometimes. I'm taking the bad with the good.

    2. Anon Anon*

      I think this is very dependent on the organization. For example, in the Great Recession our larger competitors cut staff, benefits, and salaries, but we didn’t need to do any of that. In part, because of our size we had a culture of being fiscally conservative, which when the economy tanked left us in a much better position than our competitors. So like so many things I think this is industry and organization specific.

      I do think healthcare benefits do tend to be worse at smaller companies, but sometimes there are other benefits that are better.

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        Sure, totally depends, but it’s probably more true for smaller companies on thinner margins and revenues than it is for monoliths with multiple business areas, is all I’m saying. If you’re a teapot maker, and the tea market has a rocky few years, you’re closer to the bone than a manufacturer of samovars, espresso makers, coffee makers, and party hats.

      2. AnotherAlison*

        Agree that it depends on the org. My large company is also fiscally conservative and weathered the recession well. Some of our equally large competitors are now owned by other competitors because they made the wrong business decisions at the wrong time.

    3. Allypopx*

      Yes, everyone wears lots of hats. Sometimes this means that someone wears a hat not sized for their noggin.

      Oh god, so well put.

      1. Julie B.*

        Agree. Been there, lived that, and umm, have the hat (though I’ve grown into now).

    4. AnotherAlison*

      Yeah, I’m not sure we should all just accept that wearing a lot of hats in a small business is a wonderful thing.

      I can see how an entry level administrative job in a large company could be fairly boring (we have someone who spends a good chunk of time managing the floor plan because we move around a lot), and that an entry level administrative job in a small company, where you also get to do a little marketing and a little HR, etc. could be more engaging. But, I think a lot of jobs have more exciting opportunities if you’re only focused on one discipline/domain of work.

      1. Anon for this*

        Also, at my org we have a senior staff position that’s all encompassing admin – Finance, HR, Accounting, all the things. Last person specialized in finance. Current person specializes in HR. It’s a bad position to not understand all facets of with some authority.

        1. another anon for this*

          That is similar to my role, except that finance is managed by a separate senior position. Everything else is my responsibility. I can’t even have team meetings with my staff because they all do completely unrelated things. I feel like it’s just too much and, especially as our small organization grows, it’s really challenging to switch from thing to another, as some of them are completely opposite and I am expected to respond with a high amount of expertise. I don’t know what to do about it other than find another job that is not as all-over-the-place!

      2. Stellaaaaa*

        Yep, I remember thinking it was good luck that my last job (8-person company) started training me in Quickbooks on my first day. That’s a skill that has opened a lot of doors for me and it’s hard to get training in it, from my experience. But after a while i found myself being asked to take on more and more customer service work without being given any flexibility in my original duties. A lot of times the “many hats” thing is a way to dance around the fact that the company doesn’t want to hire the staff it needs. Small business owners often view employee salaries as literally coming directly out of their (the owner’s) own pockets and they don’t like that math.

        1. AnotherAlison*

          I think this can affect your long-term income, too. My husband owned a small biz, and his bookkeeper/customer service/admin/receptionist person sure didn’t get paid what our corporate accounting clerk got paid, plus they had advancement opportunities. (And we don’t pay acct clerks that highly).

        2. Anon Anon*

          I think this is the biggest drawback of a small organization. Sometimes employees are asked to wear too many hats. And as someone else noted, it does seem that when you are promoted you keep some of the duties from your previous position. I do think that results in employees being more overloaded.

          1. Stellaaaaa*

            The only way to make it a positive thing (in my opinion) is to make it part of your long-term strategy. I graduated with a music performance degree 3 months before the recession hit. I would not have landed my current job (still for a small company, but I work remotely 4 days a week and you can rip that perk from my cold dead hands) without the skills and inflated title (everyone’s manager or director of something at a small biz) from my prior position at a terrible small company. Sometimes you need to dive in already knowing what your exit strategy is.

        3. Kira*

          Agreed, I was thinking how asking people to stretch into so many areas often goes hand in hand with an unwillingness to admit that you have limited resources. Sometimes it would be better to drop Nice Idea #349 so that your staff member can focus on their core duties make the biggest difference.

    5. Manders*

      Yeah, I like many aspects of working for small companies, but benefits issues may eventually force me into a bigger company. Also, whenever I hop to a new company because there’s no more room for promotion, I have to go through a 3 month probation period before I can get benefits. Now that I’m over age 26 and can’t get on my parents’ plan, and I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to rely on affordable options in the marketplace, I’m starting to see the advantages of sticking with one company where I can grow into more advanced roles for 5 or 10 years.

    6. Mike C.*

      Yeah, I still remember a baseline index fund in the company 401(k) costing over 1% per year when at a place with a few hundred people.

    7. Stranger than fiction*

      Holy cow ! That is expensive. At my small co , I only pay about $60/paycheck for myself and one dependent because the company pays 100% of employee premium and 60% of dependents (previously 80%, but we had to take a hit somewhere with the yearly insurance co increases). BUT, we used to qualify for large group with 50 employees until a law changed for this year where it’s now 100 employees to qualify. So now that we’re small group, my cooays have nearly doubled and some of our prescriptions have gone up. Overall we still have it pretty good though imo.

    8. Kira*

      Wrong-sized hats can be useful when switching out, though. In interviews I could explain the skills I was good at, and had a ready example for my weaknesses just by mentioning one of the duties I enjoyed less.

  10. May*

    It’s not related to this post, does anyone know what happened to the “guy with no name” from last week ?
    (Alison, I hope it’s ok I asked. If it’s not, please delete my comment)

  11. AnotherHRPro*

    The experience in working for a small company is just very different than working for a large company. One is not better than the other. I know this is an old post, but anyone thinking of making the switch (either way) should really think about why they want to make that change. Some people think that it is “cooler” to work for a big name company, but the culture can be jarringly different. And while many professional skills can be transferable, the work can be significantly different.

    I’m currently working for a Fortune 100 company and I do find some hiring managers being impressed by candidates from other select companies and scanning past candidates from small ones. But this isn’t all hiring managers and it is often role specific, as Alison pointed out.

    1. Dan*

      One thing prospective hires need to keep in mind though is that there really isn’t such a thing as “The Culture” at big company. Culture is really division and department (and even role) specific, and that’s not something that really gets communicated very well to prospective hires.

      Big Company X can offer flex time to its technical staff, but that’s meaningless to the admin who is required to be present during normal office hours. Big Company X can offer telecommuting, but that’s a pointless benefit to those working on classified projects who have to be in secured facilities to do the work.

      In my years of working at big companies, I’ve found that my department and its management set the cultural tone. You can work at a company that makes “Top 100” lists, and have a shitty boss.

  12. Mariellen*

    I’ve worked at small companies (one was ~100 people, one was ~40 people) and large F100 companies. Unless I was absolutely desperate, I would never work for a small company again.

    Some disadvantages I can think of –

    ~Drama. So much drama for a professional workplace. I thought I was back in high school.

    ~Loosy-goosey HR policies meant that bullying, teasing, sexual harassment went on all the time. People with questionable backgrounds (poor work history, even had an analyst with several felony convictions…) were hired as these firms did not do extensive background checks because it wasn’t in their budget. There were some very great people working at these places, but we also had a lot of ‘bottom of the barrel’ “talent”.

    ~ Inexperienced, ineffective upper management at these firms.

    ~Long hours, all the time, because the firms were small and there was always the expectation to ‘go the extra mile’ to keep the company going. At my F100 jobs, I’ve always had excellent work/life balance.

    -No room for growth.

    -Non recognizable name isn’t that great for the ol’ resume. I do the occasional hiring in my role now (at a F100) and while it might sound ‘bad’, I’ll give more look to someone who’s working at, say, “3M” than someone who’s working at “XYZ Systems Inc”. The 3M employee is going to have the corporate, matrix environment experience, and with that, is used to following the processes and procedures that someone in the role I’m hiring for, here, would do. The XYZ Systems Inc employee – well, I’ve never heard of the place, so I don’t know. If I have a ton of resumes to sort through, I have to weed them out somehow.

    1. Stellaaaaa*

      Ugh, and don’t even get me started on the specific type of small business owner who never outgrows the mindset of “I started this business out of my garage by paying the neighbor kids in pizza. What do you mean there’s a difference between ‘exempt’ and ‘salaried’? That’s not harassment, it’s just a joke! Why should I ever take a business course to brush up on basic stuff?” A lot of these people have never worked for anyone else and yet they think other people should find it easy to work for them even though they have no business knowledge.

  13. AnonEMoose*

    I definitely prefer working for somewhat larger companies (not huge multinationals, but more in the 500 employee and up range). I’ve worked in a couple of really small offices, and didn’t like it. My perspective may be slightly different in that, in both of those jobs, I was in an administrative support position. Yes, I got to do a lot of different tasks and I learned stuff.

    The down side (and for me, it was a big one) was that I was the only person in the office who couldn’t say “no” to anything. Because by the time a task got to me, there was literally no one else to do it. So I ended up overextended, juggling directly contradictory priorities, and incredibly frustrated by it all. In a bigger company, there’s usually at least someone who can help.

    And, at the smaller places, it seemed like the interpersonal drama was just so. much. worse. First time, the person who had gotten promoted out of the position I was in just couldn’t quite let go – so everything I did was wrong, according to her. Second time, the receptionist was…interesting. She had this weird obsession with keeping tabs on the newest person in the office (first me, and then someone hired after me). She’d constantly be asking whoever was going by her desk “what’s New Person doing? Where is New Person?” It was incredibly uncomfortable. I mean, yes, she needed to know if I was in the office or not, but she didn’t need to know what I was doing every minute of every day. That wasn’t the only weirdness in that office, but it was probably the worst.

  14. NW Mossy*

    I started small and then moved into a bigger organization after 6 years in the industry, and that worked out great for me – my diverse experience helped me get my foot in the door at the bigger firm, and I’ve gotten a broader range of growth opportunities by stepping up in organizational size. I’m really happy with the spot I’m in right now, and I’ve come to appreciate having more people available to participate in work that’s just too big for any one person to do alone.

    I’ve also found that if you’re in a long-term living situation with another working adult, you can get into a nice best-of-both situation if one of you works for a big firm and the other a smaller one. In my case, I have the big-firm job that provides benefits for my kids and a stable job, while my spouse works for the small company that gives basically indefinite schedule flexibility and gigantic bonuses in good years but that also probably won’t survive the not-far-off retirement of the founders. As a unit, we’re able to offset the downsides of each situation, which is a really nice position to be in.

  15. Rincat*

    I’ve been working at my current university for over 7 years now, in two different departments. I’ve had similar experiences to both large and small companies that many people are describing here. My university is a public research institution with about 55k students and 4k employees.

    In my first department, which was larger and then doubled in size during a reorganization, there was hardly any room for growth; lots of drama; I wore many hats but it was to put out fires, so my contributions weren’t really recognized. They were valued only in the way that I could keep a bandaid on things. My bosses were bad communicators and never took the time to meet with us to work on getting aligned about projects and goals, or professional development, or anything like that. I had some flexibility with my hours, but I always felt like my manager resented it when I would take advantage of the flexibility or ask for time off. Professional development was non-existent – you only got promotions if someone left, and if you wanted training, we were told to find free stuff that we could do if we had time (which was never). All of the issues were because of poor management. This unit was self-contained and we had about 30 people total.

    In my second (new!) department, there are 4 of us, and it’s fantastic. We meet once, sometimes twice a week to make sure we’re all aligned. My bosses give me usable feedback. I can use my PTO without feeling like I’m going to get side-eye and passive aggressive remarks. This department is part of the larger IT organization here, and the CIO is a wonderful person and leader. So it’s like I’m in a smaller company, but it’s part of the larger division that has about 150 people.

    So what I’m saying is…it just depends on the individual environment of each company. Allison is certainly correct that an IT manager for a 10 person company will have a very different experience than an IT manager for a 1000 person company, but that doesn’t mean the experience is any less valuable. It’s just different and comes with different consequences! And like with me, I had very different experiences even within the same “large” company.

  16. hbc*

    Focusing on the aspect of getting hired for your next job (because we can all agree that size matters as to work life and environment and such), the fact that you’ve worked in larger companies before takes away most of the risk. We’re actually a small company, so we’d be worried about fit with a person who has *only* worked in big companies. Not eliminate them from consideration, but ask some targeted questions for sure.

    The only way being recently at a small company would “hurt” you is if you got in the door based on being, say, an experienced Controller, and their idea of experience in that role is managing 50 accountants and you do everything that has to do with accounting. But then it’s more like you’re being judged on your actual experience–yeah, you may do the financial statements, but you’re probably doing Business Accounting 101-type statements in between paying the gas bill and calling customers about late payments. No shame in that, but maybe not what they were expecting.

  17. Uzumaki Naruto*

    In law practice in the US, the size of your firm is frequently taken as a signal about the firm’s (and, therefore, your) quality as an attorney. Some small firms are better than some large firms, and you might actually get more/better experience at a small firm — but this is definitely a thing that matters for employability in at least some industries.

  18. Sunshine on a cloudy day*

    This is completely anecdotal and by no means absolute, but it seems in my experience and from others I know about and things I’ve overheard while being involved or tangientially involved in hiring processes is this:

    Larger companies seem a bit more reticent to hire someone coming from a smaller firm than smaller firms are to hire from a larger firm.

    Again – by no means absolute. I went from a string of small firms to a large firm. So it definitely can happen. Also not saying that all smaller firms are jumping at potential employees from large firms. I’m sure some have the exact concerns that Alison mentioned in her response.

    Just saying – it never seemed to come up when I was involved in hiring at smaller firms, but it seems to come up often at my current large firm (as potential concern) and I seemed to face quite a bit of skepticism when interviewing at larger firms, coming from a small firm. I was specifically looking to move to a larger firm, so I think that helped me.

  19. Fiennes*

    Before I was self-employed, I tended to be happier at larger companies mostly because I found you were less at the mercy of any one individual’s whims and quirks — though that undoubtedly had more to do with the specific small businesses (with outsized personalities) I ran across. And maybe it was just my large company, but I found the bureaucracy more efficient than “eventually Jane will send you the thing, when she gets around to it.” Interestingly, one of my friends at the largest company I worked at used a wheelchair and needed assistance, and he said big companies were SO much better with disability access; he frequently counseled disabled college students, who tended to believe small companies were more flexible, but this was not his experience at all. He needed an extra assistant in the research library? Assigned within the day. Desk not at the correct height? Amended or replaced by the next morning. Bureaucracy has its upsides.

    To get back to the OP: I would say to play up the things you do learn in a smaller company. You’ve probably had more input on systems/processes/etc, which may give you experience people at your level in a bigger organization lack. You’ve almost certainly borne greater personal responsibility in some key areas. You probably have more insight into overall flow & syructut of your business. These are all things that ought to be attractive to an employer of any size. However you can tailor your work history to display such traits, that approach will probably go furthest toward making interviewers focus on the positives.

    1. Fiennes*

      I don’t know what a “syractut” is; thanks for nothing, autocorrect. Read “structure.”

  20. Catalyst*

    I think this is really dependent on the position that you are looking for. For example, when I am hiring for a position in accounting that is really repetitive with little day to day change, if someone has worked for a small company so their experience is very broad, I would be concerned that they would get bored. This is always a concern for someone with more experience than needed as well. On the other hand, if I were hiring for a position where someone needs to understand a lot of accounting concepts and do a lot of different things, this would be a positive as it shows stretch. So even within my department it would depend.
    My advice to the OP is that you should think about the context of the position you were being interviewed for, or talking to the recruiter about, as it could go either way.

  21. Nervous Accountant*

    This is such an interesting post.
    I’ve worked for mostly small companies, with disastrous results (dysfunctional mgmt, psychotic bosses, etc).
    The company I work for right now, I’ve been here for 2+ years/4 tax seasons. It was huge then shrank to 1/4 of the size and has now doubled/tripled in staff. It’s still what I’d call a smallish company, not the F100 or anything, but it’s pretty decent sized. My duties are such that I wear many hats… I do everything, payroll, bookkeeping, customer service, notices, sales tax, tax returns, consultations, and now training as well, all but actual office admin stuff. Everyone at my level has the same level of duties. I think it’s valuable because we get a sense of what we want to specialize in and like and dislike.

  22. JustFoundThisPlaceRecently*

    Sometimes a small operation can give broader experience because there isn’t room to specialize.

    A family member went to work at a three-professional practice right out of training for the field. By the time the practice was sold to a local group – and she was let go – she had been managing the business for years. Generally everything the 3 primaries didn’t want to do, everything outside their field, was her responsibility. When she found her next job at a different group that had many such offices under it, she found that nobody there had her breadth of experience. At the new job the larger staff was specialized in particular areas, while she had the complete picture. It hasn’t helped with her immediate boss, who may feel threatened by that experience, but it has been positive for relationships farther up the reporting tree.

  23. Blossom*

    My stint at a big organisation actually felt “smaller” in some ways, and not the good ways. It turned out that my department was not very outward-looking, so building relationships with other teams was an uphill struggle, even on a basic transactional level. And when you’re sitting on a whole other floor (or even another building), well, that doesn’t make it any easier. I missed being part of things. It confirmed how important it is to me to be at the centre of the action, close to strategy. And just to feel like a human being, instead of a cog.

    One of my mistakes, though, was to take a lower-ranking job (same pay, as the big org generally paid better). I might have had a different experience if I’d gone from Teapot Manager at SmallOrg to Teapot Manager at BigOrg, which I think is more what Alison’s talking about.

  24. Scott*

    Yes it will be a disadvantage if you are applying to a large company. People who’ve only worked in small companies can usually get stuff done quicker, have better access to decision makers, have less rules/more flexibility and usually have more utility experience.

    The concern is that you may not have as deep experience in a specialty, may be frustrated by more rules and bureaucracy, feel less connected to your colleagues and maybe feel overwhelmed by the enormity of everything. And unless you are in a really high position it can be weird never interacting with the company leaders.

  25. Vinod*

    I agree with both the perspective of working in large and small companies. I have personally worked in large and smaller company, the smallest being 180 employees and the largest being 7,000 employees. I personally feel few years at the start of the career it is always good to work in small companies as we advance in experience larger companies gives scope to grow and lead the team. we can effectively lead a team as we have more broader scope to do the work. Leadership is always risky in smaller companies if the company do not do well in the business and individuals shortcomings are bound to reflect manifold

  26. Student*

    I agree that it might depend on what kind of profession you are in. But as Alison Green said in her response, it may play a role when being interviewed for future jobs. Future employers might look at someone who has worked for a large company and think that person has more experience than a person that has worked in a small company. But I do also agree that wherever you are hoping to work for will look at your individual achievements rather than just the size of the companies you have experience with.

  27. QueenB*

    In my experience, working for small companies has been harmful to my job search. To be clear, I’ve worked for very small companies (10 employees or less) so I suppose your experience can be much different if we’re talking 25-50 employees. In any case, here’s what experienced:
    1) at small companies, it can be difficult to have comparable success criteria. For instance, if you are competing against folks who have managed multi million dollar budgets and your measly $5M is small potatoes. Even if you managed to a surplus, etc. it’s hard to compete. Also, if you are dealing with a family type business or the “zany entrepreneur” you will likely encounter at some point a business that is poorly run, lacks focus, and ultimately fails despite your own best efforts. It comes from the top down.
    2) while you will gain TONS of new skills at a small company, more often than not you risk becoming a “generalist” – a worker who is pretty much good at everything but lacks demonstratively expertise in that area. And if you decide you want to move out of a small business, I’ve found it’s easy to lose the job to someone who is more specialized in that specific area. Plus, people start asking things like “don’t you think you’ll be bored simply doing ‘X’ when you’ve been doing ‘X, Y, and Z?’” Sure there are ways to overcome but if a hiring manager forms an assumption, there may be nothing you can do to change it.
    3) you will be hard pressed to find a small company with a decent health plan, 401(k), etc. some small. Companies do pay well, others don’t. But the benefits packages at large companies are so much better. Unless you want to spend the rest of your life with a high deductible and lousy in-network selection…
    4) there isn’t often room for advancement. Sometimes a company will grow and create jobs, it happens. But be aware that at a small company it’s also pretty likely that a promotion will simply be added work to your existing job.
    5) there is no HR at most small companies. If you gave harassment, or have an incident, etc. most of the time the company is not equipped to handle it. Often the owners themselves are demanding and abusive.
    6) you don’t get to learn to latest technologies. Most small companies are slow adopters of technology, so in most cases you’ll be using a small database no one has ever heard of. You will often learn by watching the company do things “the wrong way”.

    Really, I could go on and on. I would highly encourage you to reconsider a small company unless you already have experience at a larger company to back you up in the future. Be mindful of Glassdoor reviews, and don’t accept promises (“we are getting a better health plan next fiscal year, etc). If it’s not in the benefits package when you sign on board it probably never will be.

    I speak from experience, and this is really only the tip of the iceberg.

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