Friday, April 23, 2010

Weighing the Pros and Cons of Working for a Large Corporation

When I interviewed new hires to work for my prior employer (a large high-tech corporation) I was sure to include a discussion on what it means to work in a large corporation. I would start by telling candidates that…

The good news is you work for a large corporation.

Besides the access to benefits (like say, health insurance), one of the biggest advantages to working in a large company is that you can change jobs – often multiple times – and stay within the company. For someone like me who is always up for a new challenge, being able to move from a development team, to a marketing group, to services, and back again, provides the intellectual challenge that many people seek – without having to update the resume and embark on a job search.

There’s also more flexibility in moving from technical roles to project management roles, to personnel management roles in a large company, simply because those jobs exist. At the same time, if you are the type that likes to become an expert in something – to go deep – then large companies can be a great option because the technical career paths extend higher into the company.

Larger companies tend to have more physical sites (and branch offices), as well as more diversity in co-workers, making them good places to grow and collaborate.

Until the last decade I would have also said that the large company provides a feeling of family, but I find that for most that’s no longer true. Many employees are working remotely or from home, and may never even meet their co-workers.

I have also crossed job-security off the list of benefits of a large corporation. While this used to be true... not so much anymore. Instead of staff balancing occurring across business units (e.g. down-sizing one unit to staff a new team), too often jobs are cut completely, or staffed overseas. And that brings us to the flip side of the coin…

The bad news is you work for a large corporation.

There’s a phenomenon similar to a Vulcan mind meld that happens within large companies. Each company has a culture, and successful employees conform to that culture. This can be a good thing, but for many it means that it’s harder to be seen (and heard) as an individual.

And large companies really do have more red tape. It’s harder to get decisions made, and employees have less autonomy. You may have a brilliant idea, but by the time you follow all required processes, and review it with all the stakeholders, and get your executive team to buy-in, there’s a good chance that it may not even resemble what you started with. Of course, there’s also a chance that the end product may have improved with all the input and collaboration. What do you think?

What have you found to be the good and the bad in working for a large corporation?


KarenG said...

The bad is that it can get so good, so comfortable and secure that you never want to leave even when your heart says it's time. Your mind says, "But the insurance..." And "People would kill for the job I have here." Those velvet ropes keep you bound and secure.

Maurice Frank said...


Regarding the advantage of being able to change jobs within a large company, I do agree with you in general.

However, my specific experience when I worked for IBM (1998-2004) was not this way. Indeed, when I joined IBM one of my hopes was that I could transfer within the company when that made sense for me. Reality: NOT. The glitch was that the consulting unit I worked for was measured by utilization (billable hours) among other things, and to get utilization you need people working and billing, so letting them go elsewhere is not something the practice leaders liked. So, even if a suitable position was available, there was pressure from management to stay where I was. That said, other people did move out of the practice, but my original expectations of mobility within were not met.

Also, I was able to perform in multiple roles within the practice from project to project, and that was good.

One big benefit: the internal knowledge base and skill pool was just enormous. If you had to find information about something, or someone with that expertise, it took some work, but the resources were there.

Thanks once again for an excellent blog.

Colette said...

Karen, that is so true -- I've been there!

Maurice, it sounds like you got stuck in a place where you were "too valuable to let move on". I have something interesting tee-ed up for discussion on that and other crazy things managers do next week.

Anonymous said...

I share the word of caution that large companies allow job transfer. My experience is that middle management are allowed to become "franchises" Headcount freezes, critical resource for utilisation, etc. mean that transfers are NOT allowed.

I do support the fact that working in a large company may make it easier to create a network of peers who can assist and mentor.

Thanks for a great blog

Colette said...

Peter thanks for adding your experience to the discussion.

GregP said...

The good: Benefits
The bad: Back-stabbing politics
The ugly: Downsizing, Resource Actions or whatever name the company can come up with for being fired for the sake of the 'bottom line'.

Colette said...

GregP, yes - there is a lot to be said for benefits.

Splaktar said...

Another good: more flexibility in work situations. ie: work from home, work remotely, 4 day work weeks, etc.

As mentioned previously with the bad, politics. Politics exist in every workplace. But when I went from a small public company to a large corporation, I observed that politics became much more important. Promotions and ratings seemed to become much more based upon who you know and who knew you, rather than real technical achievement or skill.

So in a large corporation there seems to be a real benefit to those hallway conversations which take away from your 'productive' time. Unfortunately, if you aren't working in the office, you get cut out of most of those opportunities.

There is also a big difference in management style. While this varies between all managers, there seem to be themes when you compare large and small companies. Previously our managers covered a team of less than 10 developers and they had a good feel of what people were doing and how well they performed.

With the large corporation, managers were responsible for steadily increasing numbers of reports. It started at 5-10 when we got acquired and reached the point where a single first line manager had almost 40 direct reports. This led to managers having very little feel for who was skilled and productive. Since they had so little time for each report, a lot of their information about employee performance seemed to come from hearsay and rumors.

Thus if you really want to be able to stand out and make a difference with technical skills, a smaller company seems better.

Large corporations seem to cater to two different types:
1) someone who hides in the shadows and collects their salary hoping that no one notices their lack of skills. They frequently try to ride the coat tails of others.
2) Political masters who can use powers of persuasion and influence to move up the pay scale. Technical skills do not seem to be required, only the ability to talk about technical concepts and make others buy in to your proposals.
They often change positions and teams so often than there is no real accountability for their past actions.

Also like others have mentioned, as a highly skilled technical person, I found that changing positions/teams within the company was nearly impossible. I was in the 'too valuable to let move on' bucket for many years. Then when a new manager came in, she no longer recognized any of those buckets and I had my chance to move. But by that time the economy was sinking and the only US hiring in the company was college interns and grads. All senior level jobs were being staffed offshore.

K. said...

Colette did a great summary. The benefits and the availability of diverse jobs were the largest pros in my opinion.

I was able to change jobs and organizations frequently during my 30 year career at a large high-tech corporation, working in manufacturing, development, marketing, sales, finance, procurement, and channels. This satisfied my need for new challenges and gave me a very broad range of experience while allowing me to maintain important benefits (like vacation, retirement savings, and insurance).

I was fortunate to have a mentor explain to me early in my career to focus on skills and not just experience. I learned how to ensure I was getting broad experience/skills (versus becoming too deep in one area) so that I could compete for a variety jobs as I moved up the chain. I think those who say they could not change jobs were not necessarily "too" valuable to move, rather they were "more" valuable to the firm where they were because their skills were deep and not broad. I had to be very flexible to accomplish this much job diversity, moving at one point 5 times in 10 years, and I find that many people want the benefits of job diversity but are not will willing to sacrifice to achieve it.

That said, working for large firms has changed significantly and it will continue to change. The biggest change I see is that the implied contract that once existed between large companies and their employees (loyalty in exchange for job security) is gone. The reality is that many employees of large firms would be better served to leave their current company to broaden their skills and then they could come back action that would have not been tolerated by large companies in the past since it would have been considered disloyal.

In my opinion, the pros of working for a large company still outweigh the cons, but I caution young people that they should not expect to stay with the same company for 30 years, even if they are a great company.

Jonathan said...

Probably I'm naive, even after 25 years in the workplace. It certainly seemed that for my father, he took care of the corporation, and the corporation took care of him.

My recent experience with IBM (2003-2009) was that there was no reciprocity to the relationship. In part IBM gives a lot of leeway to the managers, so my experiences could be due to my unit's management. But no energy was wasted on fostering employee loyalty.

Actually, a certain amount of the corporate training was to prevent disgruntled employees from damaging the company -- this just fosters an environment of paranoia and unhappiness.

There are a lot of resources and a good benefits package, sure, and it kept me there. But the way my work was structured, I was increasingly isolated from the people I worked with and the people I worked next to.

Colette said...

K, it sounds like you had a great mentor!

Jonathan -- good point! A lot has changed from when your father was working to now.

Kenneth H. Lee said...

Pros: can be comfortable working for a large corporation

Cons: can be too comfortable working for a large corporation. What KarenG posted is what happened to me.. I got comfortable and even though I knew deep down it was time to move/leave. it was not possible to get a transfer due to my next comment...

I had a similar experience to Maurice when I worked for IBM/Advantis (1995-2007).

I got the we can't let you move because you are a critical resource pulled on me several times. Plus I got the just because you are doing XYZ as described for band Y, does not mean that you will get promoted to band Y. Kind of hard to know where to improve when one's manager just points to a document which details the general responsibilities for a specific band level but does not provide any substantive suggestions to move in the correct direction. This is also the same manager who always read from the management script in a deadpan voice whenever there was an RA to deal with. I never knew whether I was going to live or die when he started one of those conversations.... This is the same manager who used the phrase "condition of employment" whenever anyone questioned anything that came down from the management team which was suspect... Not a great way to engender support of processes and procedures.. Do what we tell you and don't complain or question us even for legitimate concerns, otherwise we will fire you...

We all got a lot of lip service from management in an attempt to keep us natives "happy" and in control, but most of us were jaded and cynical due to all of the nonsense that we had endured along the way.

Some of my comments are also appropriate for another of Collette's later postings..

I am glad to be free of IBM at this point even though I am still looking for employment 27 months later..

Enough of my rambling...

Colette said...

Kenneth, thanks for sharing your story. I agree that it's easy to get too comfortable. Managers can get too comfortable and stuck too. Perhaps that's was the case with the manager you reference who always read from 'the book'.

Rat Racer No More? said...

If I may build on some of the preceding comments...

I think that, in addition to weighing large vs. small, job-seekers should consider the privately-held versus publicly-traded factor. I believe that the pressure to deliver quarterly results contributes to much of the nonsense at publicly-held orgs.

Also key seems to be whether the company is growing revenue to achieve the desired results or is struggling to grow revenue and resorts to "growing" through cost-cutting and stock buybacks.

As for benefits, we may be overestimating the quality of large corporations' bennies; at least as compared to those at mid-sized organizations. I've worked for both size orgs and the benefits were extremely comparable; especially given how much large company benefits have eroded in the dozen or so years since I worked for the mid-sized company.

Finally, it seems to me that the expression "our employees are our greatest asset" can be a mere platitude at a large org. Smaller orgs have less staffing wiggle room and probably do need everyone. However, my last employer couldn't afford to develop everyone and so focused its efforts on the top 10% performers while basically keeping the rest on what amounted to "life support" (i.e. keeping-up with inflation at the very best) and letting them self-select in or out. That is, until "resource action" season when they would cull the lower performers and the less politically adept. I would add that the performance evaluation process which enabled this employee stratification has the (perhaps unintended) result of breeding low self-esteem issues among those not in the top 10%. This, in turn can drive that dynamic wherein people feel lucky to have their job and fear that they couldn't do any better if they went elsewhere.

I don't condemn the large corporation as having no redeeming value; I just think those folks who would have killedgeoxam for the job that I had should be equipped with the perspective that would enable them properly consider whether or not it would "fit" them any better than it did me.

Sam said...

Consider these pros and cons before you work for a large corporation. There are always advantages in working for a huge company, but there are also factors that you should know and consider.

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John said...

I have to agree with in some points. I haven't experienced working in a large company but I'm actually planning to. Knowing these things can help me deal with any issues regarding these large companies.

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