Women Job Seekers Should Target Small Employers That Can Better Offer Work Flexibility
The prevailing belief that large companies offer the most stability is no longer true.
Adapted from Ambition Redefined, by Kathryn Sollmann, published by Nicholas Brealey Publishers, 2018. All rights reserved.
When I was a senior in college, there was great excitement when big corporate recruiters came to campus looking for the next crop of entry-level candidates. Every company was a household name, and I remember feeling pretty special when I made it to the second round of interviews with IBM. Thinking back, I have no idea why I was interviewing with IBM -- other than I liked the prestige of the very well-known big company name. It made little sense otherwise: I was an English major, the editor of the campus newspaper and not at all interested in selling behemoth business machines.
Some version of that story has been told to me by current and former professional women many times. I've met left-brain, creative women who were lured by the prestige of right-brain, big-bank training programs; journalists now earning a fraction of the big law firm salaries they pursued on the strong suggestion of hard-driving parents; and ex-consumer product marketing executives turned nurses who finally came to the conclusion that health care has more meaning than account management. For a variety of often unfounded personal biases and outside pressures, many of us have at one time been led to believe that big company names are the fastest route to highly regarded and risk-free careers.
The prevailing belief was once that big companies -- established for many decades -- held the most stability. This was especially true in the late 1990s, when the dot-com bubble burst and scores of startups failed. But, the Great Recession then brought mass firings of once "safe" big corporate employees. Now the reality is that no company large or small offers jobs with rock-solid stability.
Though all companies can be volatile, opportunities at small companies are vast, and their market share is substantial. The 29.6 million small businesses in the United States account for almost 48 percent of private-sector employees and 41 percent of private-sector payroll. Small businesses accounted for almost 62 percent of all net new jobs from 1993 to 2016.
These small businesses are led by individuals who often have opted out of the restrictive nature of corporate America. With miles of bureaucratic red tape, layers and layers of decision-making, and the task of institutionalizing benefits for global employees, large companies tend to hold fast to traditional workforce structures and policies. For decades, women have left these corporate giants because opportunities to work in any flexible way were nonexistent or scarce.
Great progress has been made on the flexibility front, but it will likely be years before flexibility is status quo across big corporate America or mandated by government. For now, if you're certain your current employer will never grant flexibility or you're just in the market for a new job, your best bet is to head toward smaller companies. More nimble management teams have the leeway to operate as humans, and they are more likely to bend on how work is done -- as long as there is a defined structure, it is done efficiently, competitively, and on time. Small employers (50 to 99 employees) are much more likely than large employers (1,000 or more employees) to offer all or most employees these options:
- Traditional flextime or the ability to periodically change start and end times (36 percent versus 17 percent)
- The ability to change start/end times on a daily basis (12 percent versus 4 percent)
- An option to compress the workweek by working longer hours on fewer days (10 percent versus 4 percent)
- The ability to work some regular paid hours at home occasionally (9 percent versus 1 percent)
- Time off for family or personal needs (51 percent versus 33 percent)
You're also likely to find the most flexibility at professional services organizations and nonprofits, as well as companies that were founded more recently and have more women in their workforces. From an employee benefits perspective, smaller companies offer an advantage, too: They are more likely than large employers to pay all health insurance premiums (20 percent versus 6 percent).
Follow the 1 Million for Work Flexibility movement.
1 Million for Work Flexibility (1MFWF) is the first national initiative creating a collective voice in support of work flexibility. You can follow this organization on Facebook and Twitter and stay on top of all the information their website provides about flexibility trends.
1MFWF tracks legislation related to work flexibility, so you can identify and keep track of the proposed and enacted city, state and federal legislation that affects you. In 2017 the Flexibility for Working Families Act was reintroduced in Congress, giving workers the right to request temporary or permanent changes to the number of hours they're required to work, the times they are required to work or be on notice, and where they're required to work.
The Workflex in the 21st Century Act (known as the Workflex bill) was also introduced in 2017 to help employees strike a better work-life balance. Employers who choose to adopt a workflex plan would be required to offer all employees the option to participate in at least one of six flexible scheduling options, such as telecommuting or predictable scheduling.
While this legislation is pending, the majority of states have work flexibility policies that apply to state workers, and there are broader workplace flexibility laws (including right to request laws) in San Francisco, New Hampshire and Vermont. Especially if you live in one of these areas, your knowledge of flexibility laws could help you shape a work structure that not only fits your life but is also well within the guidelines of a wide range of small to midsize employers.
Roll up your sleeves: Find smaller companies with a true flexwork culture.
Many very smart women I coach tell me they just want a flexible job -- without creating a game plan. Since every company in your area cannot be a possible target, you'll need at least a preliminary short list of smaller companies that truly interest you within a reasonable commuting distance. A targeted list ensures that you'll make some real traction, and you can keep adding and deleting companies on the list as your networking and job searching evolves.
Let's assume, for example, that you want to work for smaller public relations firms in Ohio. There are many ways to begin and conduct a thorough search.
A great way to start is the internet. A search for "award-winning public relations firms in Ohio" or "award-winning public relations firms in Columbus, Ohio" may list many companies you've never heard of; select the ones that look worthy of further research. Checking out individual websites for agencies in your target locations will give more insights to their size, the type of work they do, their client lists, the backgrounds of their management team and more. Most importantly, you might see evidence that flexibility and work-life balance are part of their company cultures.
Other ways to search might include "fastest-growing public relations firms in Ohio," which will likely include smaller firms; "best Ohio companies for flexible jobs"; or "best companies to work for in Ohio." The broader searches will lead you to lists of many different types of companies, so then you'll have to sift through and see if any are of interest and find out how much flexibility truly exists.
Once you have your initial company target list, the next step is to rev your networking engine. In virtually every job market -- whether our economy is booming or near bust -- the best way to find a job is through networking. When it comes to flexible jobs at smaller companies, networking is even more of a game-changer. As a general rule, far more full-time jobs are advertised, and it takes some digging to find less traditional roles. Through networking, you're likely to find the best opportunities and vet companies that may not have long track records.
Networking is also a much better resource than online job boards. Pressing the "apply" button on an online job listing may seem like the fastest way to a job, but in reality, it is a rocket ship to a great abyss. Thousands and thousands of desperate job seekers send their resumes to any email address they can find, making it necessary for employers to ignore the mountain of resumes that a single job posting generates. Instead, employers often call a friend to say, "Who do you know who would be good for this job?" The "who do you know" game has been played for decades, and now it is a job-search card played by more than the uber-connected elite.
LinkedIn, for example, has leveled the playing field, offering anyone with a solid profile the opportunity to connect to recruiters and managers who were once impossible to access or reach. With more than 400 million members, LinkedIn is a networking goldmine where you could spend weeks on end doing nothing but finding more and more ways to connect to people who could help you find the flexwork you desire.
Through her blog and coaching firm, 9 Lives for Women, Kathryn Sollmann strongly encourages women to always work -- at every age and life stage -- to achieve long-term financial security. Sollmann is a frequent speaker and media resource.