Secretarial: Unhappy at work? Maybe the company's too big

The key to job satisfaction is working in the right size of firm for you.
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The Independent Culture
WHEN YOU join a company, its size is an obvious factor. Has it an international reputation? Is it financially secure enough to ensure decent salaries for its employees? What perks can it offer?

But have you really considered what it might it be like, day-to-day, to work in a small, independent company employing a couple of dozen, as opposed to a global corporation, housed in fabulous offices and with a workforce numbering thousands?

According to Umist's latest Institute of Management survey, company size is a major influence on how happy you are in your job. Professor Cary Cooper, from Umist, believes small is beautiful.

"We found that people who work for small companies feel much more loyalty, motivation and, above all, job security," explains Cooper. "Big companies, such as plcs and public sector organisations, tend to have much lower morale among their workers." In fact, claims the study, these perceptions contain more than a grain of truth: "Generally speaking, the smaller the organisation, the bigger your role as an individual, and the more you'd be missed if you were absent."

Julie Fisher, a freelance PA, agrees: "When I have worked in small businesses - especially family-run ones - I've found my daily tasks are more multi- skilled and I am therefore far more valuable. But working for companies that have several hundred employees, I have an intrinsic feeling of anonymity.

"Sometimes, it doesn't even seem to make much of a difference to my workload or to my colleagues if I am off sick, with the result that I have less motivation about what I am doing when I am there."

But what about opportunities for promotion and pay increases? Surely, the larger the business, the clearer the structure? Not so, claims Cooper. "Our research shows that in a company of fewer than 50 people, employers can see what their employees are delivering and reward them accordingly. In big companies, there may be yearly appraisals, but they are not necessarily fair. In fact, we've found that big companies are more likely to work a punishment system than a reward system. It's a case of `If you don't pull your socks up, you may find someone will prove they can do this job better than you'."

"Also, inflexible structures can mean it takes longer to work your way up. In a small company, with the right abilities and enthusiasm, you can often prove yourself enough to go straight to the top."

Even Cooper, however, is forced to admit that larger companies offer more in the way of opportunities for moving around geographically, as well as more reasonable working hours. Discrimination is also less likely - something that Sophia Lawrence, a secretarial temp, knows all too well. "Being Afro-Caribbean, I've had my fair share of racism in the workplace, and I have definitely noticed family-run businesses let it happen more often. You know, for instance, that if you work for the National Health System, or a multinational bank, there are clear equal opportunity systems in place and that means colleagues just can't get away with snide comments.

"But if all you can do is go to your manager's father - as the boss - to complain about him, you really haven't got much hope of getting anything done about it."

Dr Paul Taffinder, a chartered psychologist, agrees that size counts for a great deal, but he claims the issue is not always as simple it as it appears. "What is critical is the size of the group that one works in, rather than the overall size of the company. That's why many of the biggest companies in the world ensure that individual offices do not exceed certain numbers of staff."

Additionally, he claims, it is crucial to take into account individual personality types when assessing whether small is as beautiful as large: "I know people who have gone from big to small businesses and felt extremely uncomfortable. They like the safety and security of structure, just as they may do in their home or love life, and they just don't want that extra responsibility and control that some people can thrive on in a small business.

"Also, there is much less pressure on getting involved in new projects in larger companies, and many people simply don't like change."

The one element of working life that isn't influenced by size, agree experts, is office politics.

Neil Crawford, a psychotherapist and consultant to various organisations, explains: "Office politics is usually a result of competition between employees. People who may have been your friends may now be in direct competition with you, irrespective of how big the company is. That is the nature of all Nineties businesses.

"And, because these feelings are deeply personal, the arguments also tend to be."

So, if there's one thing you can't predict next time you're deciding whether to go for that post in the City or for the local job in the high street, it is those endless rows about who should be answering that phone, who should get the most office space and whose turn it is to buy the sticky buns. This will just have to remain pot luck.

Julie Duguy, 42, (above) is PA to the chief executive of Reed Business Information, an organisation that employs over 2,500 staff. She has experience of working in both small and large companies.

I ONCE worked for a small company that went under. Not only did I have to live with that fear day in and day out, but I also had to make sacrifices, like not getting paid when I was ill. It's an experience I'd never want to repeat.

Here, however, there's an in-house nurse, a visiting physiotherapist and a share option scheme - just to name a few of the support systems. If I have any worries about anything, I can make use of the relevant policies without which I think all employees are vulnerable.

I think the main problem of large businesses comes if you're not at the top. Because I am, I get to see the goals and ambitions and whether they are achieved - but that isn't always the case in a large organisation.

One of the main benefits is that you are less likely to deal with the nitty-gritty. If I need a new PC, I call the IT department, whereas in a small company, I'd probably have to do the research myself. If I need to send the mail, I just drop it in the post room. That means I can get on with what being a PA is all about.

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