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Is it better to work at a small company?
Readers say smaller firms are more supportive, less bureaucratic and more willing to hire workers embarking on new careers. But there are downsides too.
By Anne Fisher, FORTUNE

Making career moves
NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - A few weeks ago, a reader signed "Looking Before Leaping," who is about to graduate from college, wrote me with a delightful dilemma: too many job offers. So he asked me whether he'd be better off working at a big company or a startup (he noted that the latter seemed livelier). In that column, I cited research showing that people at smaller companies may make less money and enjoy fewer perks, but they are nonetheless much more likely than big-company employees to describe themselves as "extremely satisfied" with their jobs. But I wanted to know if others found that to be true from their own work experiences. I then asked for your comments, and guess what? Most of you agreed.

"I went from a Nasdaq-listed company to a much smaller operation," writes a reader named Jeff W. "The difference is night and day. The chances of me going to work for a huge operation again are pretty slim." Jeff's response was typical. As many of you noted, one advantage in tiny firms is more recognition from higher-ups. "When the owner of the company learns of something I did that was good -- which is a lot easier for him to learn about than it would be in a huge company -- he makes a point of telling me," Jeff writes. "What? A pat on the back from the owner? At my old job, just having my boss acknowledge my presence in the cubicle was a feat in itself."

Many readers say they find small companies' lack of bureaucracy a breath of fresh air. "Early in my career I spent five years at IBM," writes Jocelyn B., who now works for a company with just 55 employees. "In large companies, people in upper levels of management often don't really know what certain projects do, yet they have to decide whether to keep funding them... Small companies also tend to spend a lot of time deciding whether a person will fit the job. Large ones are more likely to force a square peg into a round hole, and then they're surprised when it doesn't work. Duh!"

Almost everyone pointed out that small enterprises tend to foster camaraderie and family-like atmospheres. Tina M.'s husband works for a firm with fewer than 50 employees, and was recently diagnosed with cancer. "His boss told him to take whatever time he needs off, work on whatever he can from home, and they will find a way to work it out," she writes. "The bottom line is never mentioned, but everyone is aware that they all have to pull together for the company to succeed."

Most miniscule outfits are privately held, and that can be a big plus, too. Notes Ander S., who went from a Big Four accounting firm to a much smaller one with no shareholders to answer to: "Being private, my new employer tends to be able to move much more quickly."

Hoping to change careers? Go ahead and apply at big companies, but don't be surprised if tiny ones are far more willing to give you a shot. "After 19 years in finance, I wanted to do something more creative and customer-directed, so I started looking for a job in marketing," writes Lorraine T. "The only companies that would even give me an interview were very small, and one of them recognized my aptitude and enthusiasm and hired me on a trial basis. Eight years later, I'm still here and loving it!" Research by ExecuNet, an online career service for executives, suggests she's not alone. According to Mark Anderson, ExecuNet's president, too many would-be career-switchers limit themselves to big companies and get nowhere. "Smaller companies are more likely to value the versatility of an executive from another industry or function," Anderson says. "They place less emphasis on formal requirements like previous title and industry experience."

Ah, yes -- some readers warn that there's a downside to that. Sam L. started his career at a FORTUNE 500 company and then went to a much smaller firm. "And that's when I missed the perks," he writes. "I still envy my friends who stayed put and are now getting company-sponsored MBAs. Also, small companies do not have 'bench strength' in talent and management. The organizational structure is chaotic at best and becomes anarchic at worst. Some days it's like 'Survivor: The Workplace.'" He adds: "Recruiters still see my experience at a global Fortune 500 company as an asset. Unfortunately, I had only four years of that experience."

Which brings me to another point. While more experienced workers may prefer to work for smaller firms, those who are trying to land their first job may want to consider larger ones. Several of you made the excellent point that starting a career with "name brand" experience at a gigantic company would probably serve recent grads best in the long run. Writes Brian S.: "I would caution your reader against choosing the small company right out of school. A few years at a large company is a great way to give yourself marketability for life. Then, later, you can contemplate the jump to a smaller firm." Or, as Dale Winston, president of New York City executive search firm Battalia Winston International, told me: "I have clients coming to me every day who say, 'We want someone with premier-company experience.' No one is saying you have to spend your whole life at a big-name company -- but you'd certainly be wise to get that name on your resume, and take advantage of the enormous range of resources and opportunities that big companies can offer." Amen to that.  Top of page

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