Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
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?
Size can matter or not, depending on the type of work that you do.
If you're, say, a therapist working one-on-one with clients, then it probably doesn't really matter whether you work for a small 10-person practice or a large state agency. The meat of your work is basically the same, regardless (with some exceptions, which I'll get to in a minute).
On the other hand, if you're, say, an HR director, then size does matter. Your job is going to be very different if you're dealing with HR issues for a 15-person company versus a 3,000-person company. You're going to have more people reporting to you, a larger budget you're responsible for, and a broader and deeper range of issues to handle, and you're going to be working with more stakeholders, many of whom are very senior themselves. Similarly, managing I.T. for 40 users is very different than managing it for 4,000. Doing media relations for a small trade association is different than doing it for a large and high-profile union. And so forth.
That's not to say that bigger equals better. It's just different. If you've been at smaller companies, you might know how to thrive in a more agile culture and be comfortable with more flexibility in your role. That can be attractive to an employer. On the other hand, you might chafe at the structure of larger companies, and that can be a concern as well. The reverse is also true: Smaller employers often worry that someone coming from a large, very bureaucratic environment will have trouble adjusting to a fast-paced culture where decisions are made in minutes instead of months and where they're expected to wear multiple hats. (And actually, this is a reason that company size might be noted even in the therapist example above; even when company size doesn't affect the actual work you do, an employer might wonder how you'll adjust to their differently-sized culture and environment -- but again, that's more about cultural adjustment than the work you were doing.)
And yes, some interviewers do see "large company" as shorthand for "this person was able to excel in an environment with more competition" and "small company" as shorthand for "this person hasn't yet been tested in a large, complex environment." And sometimes that's accurate, but sometimes it's not.
Good interviewers will look at what you achieved wherever you were. But -- as the examples above show -- sometimes the size of the place where you're working really does impact the work that you do, and it's helpful to be realistic about whether that's the case for you or not.
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