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The Corporate Experience Conundrum

A few years ago, Affinergy was considering two applicants with extensive work experience at large companies. The Durham, N.C., biotech company decided to pass on both of them. "We couldn't get comfortable with their [inability] to roll up their sleeves," says Jonathan Gindes, 33, co-founder of the 28-employee company.

Whether or not to hire applicants with years of corporate experience is a tricky decision for entrepreneurs. On one hand, these people bring knowledge and contacts to your company. On the other hand, they might not thrive in an environment where decisions are made on the fly, job descriptions are broad and budgets are tight.

If you're one of the lucky entrepreneurs still hiring in this economy, you'll probably get resumes from people pouring out of large corporations. Now is a good time to snatch up this talent if you can, says Ed Newman, president of The Newman Group, a talent management consulting firm. "It's a fantastic time to be recruiting. There's access to people you might not otherwise have had access to."

Look for these red flags when hiring from corporate America:

  • Their cover letter isn't personalized to your firm.
  • They're more interested in the 401(k) match and severance package than having an equity stake.
  • They expect to travel first class, eat at five-star restaurants and have a personal assistant.
  • They don't know modern computer basics, e.g., creating Word documents.
  • They expect to be assigned rather than take initiative.
  • They view meetings as the way to get things done.
  • They lack the interpersonal skills necessary in a small office.

But are these applicants entrepreneurial, and will they stick around? "It's risky to take someone who's only worked for a large company and put them in a small company," says Jon Fjeld, a management professor at Duke University. Still, you shouldn't automatically overlook them, even if they were fired from corporate America. "Being fired by itself isn't a negative," Fjeld says. "If the resume and the person seem good, probe further."

Gindes asks questions that go beyond management style, such as about traveling: Do they mind taking connecting flights? Which hotels do they prefer? Where did they vacation last? "That tells me something," Gindes says. "We want them to spend our money like it's their own." Affinergy's revenue topped $3 million last year.

Look for people who didn't quite fit the big-company mold and were always trying to accomplish new things, Fjeld says. The best resumes will focus on real achievements instead of limited involvement in projects. Also, be honest about your work environment so they know what to expect.

Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.

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This article was originally published in the March 2009 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Should You Hire Workers From Big Companies?.

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