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Work & Careers | Human Resources

Would a Bigger Company Be Better for You? Or Might Small Be Beautiful?

April 05, 1998|STEVEN GINSBERG | Steven Ginsberg writes for the Washington Post

Here's your choice: Join the world-renowned giant corporation that offers a numbered parking space or sign up with the mom-and-pop company that offers a microwave and a refrigerator instead of a cafeteria.

To go corporate or to not go corporate, that is the question.

Job seekers often face the choice of whether to work for a large corporation or a small firm. Making that choice is not easy.

Despite the images they sometimes evoke of being impersonal, even hostile, corporations also offer employees a number of attractions, including a strong support network, extensive resources, strong benefit plans and high salaries.

But working for the little guy down the street also has its pluses. Smaller firms give employees a chance to play a major role from the get-go, to work in a less bureaucratic, less politicized atmosphere and to distinguish themselves quickly.

The decision really depends on which type of environment you want to work in. What you need to be aware of from a career perspective is that it can be hard to switch from one to the other, both personally and professionally. This is especially true if you're switching from a small outfit to a large one.

To explore the advantages and disadvantages of each, we consulted with experts from various industries.

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In the accounting field, as in other professions, the biggest difference is in the type of work you get to do.

"In a larger firm, you see much more in the way of specific scenarios," said Arthur Auerback, certified public accountant. Auerback owns his own company in Vienna, Va., and used to work for Bethesda, Md.-based Councilor, Buchanan & Mitchell.

"In a smaller firm, you get a much broader aspect of dealing with clients," he said.

Clients are handled by the entire firm at large corporations; thus, accountants generally become specialists. They perform one function for clients, such as setting up a retirement plan, while the client's other needs are siphoned off to other members of the firm. Because of this structure, accountants can become compartmentalized and frustrated, Auerback said.

At smaller firms, the accountant-client relationship is much more direct, with the CPA dealing with any and all client needs, he said. Therefore, in addition to being well-rounded accountants, those who choose to work at small firms need strong communication skills.

Accountants who enlist at smaller firms are "thrown into the fire" with very little experience--which can be welcome or frightening, depending on your ability and personality. Either way, employees are given the opportunity to move up the ranks fairly quickly.

But smaller firms can be limiting. Training, mentoring and wages rarely are on par with what corporations can offer. In addition, small outfits normally draw small clients, so the magnitude of money and the scope of issues dealt with can be of a far narrower range than at large firms. And for those who have dreams of ending up at one of the Big Six accounting firms, it's much harder to sign on with a corporation after working for a small company than vice versa, Auerback said.

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Many of the same issues arise in the world of retailing. Getting in on the ground floor with a major department store can be the first step on a solid career path, but distinguishing yourself at an independent boutique can quickly provide you with loads of experience.

When deciding between the two, consider this: The main advantage department stores offer is the opportunity to dip into many facets of the business and pursue a career in any one of them.

For example, at Washington-based Hecht's, employees who start in the buying arm of the company are able to participate in the buying process, sales promotion and even advertisement copy-writing, said Nancy Chistolini, senior vice president of fashion and public relations. If employees find that they don't like buying, they can try running a specific department, she said.

The primary advantage of working at a boutique, on the other hand, is that you have the opportunity not only to be exposed to everything, but also to make an impact right from the start. For career-oriented workers, that can be a big plus. Imagine just finishing school and having the chance to buy goods, lay out merchandise and manage a small staff. It's easy to see why this path is attractive to so many people.

"If you work for a small company and you're on the ball, you can be noticed faster for sure," Chistolini said.

Although Hecht's will hire managers from outside, the company prefers to promote from within, she said.

Although large stores can provide a lot of chances to jump around and a number of advancement avenues, they also come with a lot of bureaucracy, Chistolini said. "You can't always make things happen as quickly as you could in a boutique. And you won't have as much say as you think you should have, which is probably more true as you move up the ladder."

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Steven Ginsberg writes for the Washington Post.

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