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HR: Does Size Matter? Small companies lead to big differences

If you have worked in HR in both large and small companies, you know that the differences are striking. I spent most of my career working for global investment banks with hundreds of thousands of employees. Things were matrixed, siloed, and sliced and diced into an endless number of departments and responsibilities. As an HR Generalist, I was a facilitator, a relationship builder and part of a global machine. But when I joined a small organization, everything changed.

It was a conscious choice to join a small company: I wanted less red tape and more autonomy. At a large company, it is hard to get things done - you have to jump through hoops and get multiple sign-offs from various stakeholders to execute a project or even make a simple hire. Working at a smaller company brought me the expected upsides but unexpected downsides as well. I was suddenly responsible for things that had never been under my remit before such as office administration and branding and marketing. When the pantry refrigerator broke, it was my responsibility to source and order a new one. When it was time to organize the annual holiday party, I had to scope out venues and entertainment. The branding and marketing piece was actually very rewarding: I refreshed my skills on social media positioning, revamped our collateral for our on-campus recruiting efforts, and identified a creative agency to help us update our EVP. But I could have easily done without the office administration piece.

Many of my HR peers have been lured to smaller organizations by the excitement of start-ups, particularly those in the cryptocurrency and blockchain space. If you are considering a move from “Big HR” to “Small HR” (or vice versa), there are a number of things to consider because ultimately - size does matter.

HR as Agony Aunt

In smaller companies, employees have immediate access to you as their HR partner. They see you as their own personal career coach, advocate and fixer. I was shocked at the number of hours I would spend speaking with employees who wanted to complain about some injustice or get me on side to fix a problem for them. Of course HR has a role as an employee advocate, but I do not see myself as an “HR Agony Aunt”. I was happy to guide employees and give them the tools they needed to improve their performance or facilitate difficult conversations with managers or peers, but I did not step into the middle of situations that employees should manage on their own.

Policy? What policy?

Smaller companies tend to have less of a focus on policy. Both because they’ve not had the time to focus on it and because it’s never been identified as a priority. Therefore, there is a tendency to “make things up as you go along.” This works for a while until a firm grows to a state of critical mass where employees expect more. This is particularly true if you are hiring a lot of employees from larger companies who are used to more structure. As an HR Leader, you never want to be accused of “policy for policy’s sake.” At a smaller company, if you try to throw the word “policy” around all of the time, employees and your management team will view you as a hindrance rather than an enabler of growth. So how do you find an appropriate middle ground? Because without policy, it can lead to big problems with…


...Favoritism. In a smaller company, accusations of favoritism – perceived or otherwise – are rampant. Employees were rewarded with promotions or big bonuses, not because they were qualified or had performed well, but because they were the boss’s favorite and part of the inner circle. This creates a culture of distrust between employees and management. This is when policy – and the consistent application of that policy – can help to create and maintain a level playing field. 

What is right for you

This leads me to the inherent conflict that I struggled with when working at a small company. Can the same person who is responsible for fixing the refrigerator also advise senior management on a complex and sensitive employee relations issue? Or can the person who is deciding on a venue for the holiday party also be taken seriously when discussing an organizational redesign?

On the flip side, because of your reliability and your ability to “roll up your sleeves,” you build trust with your business and they view you as an equal partner in matters both big or small. How can you bridge the gap and separate the menial, mundane tasks to really focus on delivering the big ticket items that actually make a difference to your organization? Sure, everyone likes to work in a tidy workplace, but if you are spending time managing the tea lady, how can you deliver the workplace of the future?

In today’s workplace, HR leaders are expected to do more and more. At the end of the day, in a smaller company, you have a much bigger role in shaping the culture. And sometimes, that includes things as simple as fixing office equipment and as complex as an organizational redesign. You have to decide what is right for you.

I’m interested to hear from those who have successfully bridged this gap between “small HR” and “big HR.” What techniques have worked for you? What challenges have you faced? Which culture is a better fit for you?

Need help deciding if you are a better fit for a big company or a small company?  Contact RC HR Consulting to see how we can help.

Renee Conklin is an HR Leader who writes about talent attraction, employee engagement and the future of work. She is the founder of RC HR Consulting.

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