Generally, a big company means brand recognition, internal resources, a more defined role, and processes in place to steward your career path. A small company means underdog, lean and scrappy, many hats, and a true meritocracy. These distinctions aren't just "on paper." They impact your day-to-day, the lessons you learn, and your ability to succeed, both short and long term.
In full disclosure, I'm biased. I'm a born underdog. So, some of my leanings were validated when I read this article in BusinessWeek about the companies recruiters avoid because of inadequate talent. Cited are Coca-Cola ("too easy for young managers to rise without having to develop the entrepreneurial skills necessary to compete in other arenas"), General Mills ("excessive bureaucracy," "discourage[s]... risk taking and nimbleness," "conflict avoidance," "alumni ill-equipped to handle crisis"), and Occidental Petroleum ("autocratic environment where managers... simply wait for dictates from on high").
How do you avoid an environment like these? It's generally not hard to find out what's happening inside a big company. One of my favorite sites is Glassdoor.com, where you can find salary info, internal 'scoop,' CEO ratings, and true testimonials from people on the inside. You do this kind of research when you buy a home or a car -- why stop with a potential employer?
Don't get me wrong, small companies have big issues too -- sometimes the same ones as big companies, and sometimes even bigger issues. They're just much harder to ferret out. And you run a substantial risk if you don't know much about a small company's leadership. (The lip service you get during an interview is as helpful as a press release on the company's website.)
So what's a jobseeker to do? To the best of your ability, lift up the hood. Talk to as many people as you can, and ask them simple questions like, "Do you like working here? Why? What's your favorite part? Least favorite part?"
Look around. How do the employees express themselves? How does the company express itself? How long do people stay with the company, and what do their career paths look like?
A clearer picture of the corporate culture will begin to emerge. Not the one you hear about from HR or read about on the website, but the one that people live and breathe every day. Do you see yourself in this place, with these people? Do they make the same trade-offs you do? Do they value the same things?
The values of the leadership are at the heart of every company. They trickle down into every aspect of the business -- you'll notice them even in the smallest of nooks and crannies. And if you aren't aligned with them, you're in the wrong place.
This is best explained by author and "social ecologist" Peter Drucker, who writes, "To be effective in an organization, a person's values must be compatible with the organization's values. They do not need to be the same, but they must be close enough to coexist. Otherwise, the person will not only be frustrated but also will not produce results."