Corporate refugees can be a boon to a small business--as long as you both know what to expect before jumping in.
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the May 2005 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Next time you're looking for workers, your friendly neighborhood Fortune 500 company may be the place to start. Due to a wave of downsizing, layoffs and early-retirement programs that have swept through the corporate world, lots of people who have experience working for big companies are ready to try working for small ones.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics counted 16,334 mass layoffs involving 50 or more people during the year that ended last October. The events left over 1.6 million people out of corporate jobs and countless others wondering whether to leave before the next round of layoffs began.

Often, former big-company workers check out smaller employers in hopes of finding the loyalty that seems to have evaporated from big business, says Mel Zwirn, president of Select Staffing in Schaumburg, Illinois. "It comes up often," says Zwirn. "Especially when the big growth in the American economy has been the small company." It's then that entrepreneurs have to decide whether and how to bring someone from a big firm into their smaller enterprise. And, adds Zwirn, "It's a very tricky hire."

The good news about job candidates who have experience working with big companies is that they have significant advantages over workers with other backgrounds. Training is one biggie. Sales courses, budgeting classes, management seminars and other learning experiences are standard offerings at many big companies.

Few smaller firms can match that work-related training, notes Robert W. Wendover, author of Smart Hiring: The Complete Guide to Finding and Hiring the Best Employees, 3rd Edition. But they can get it for free by hiring ex-corporate refugees.

Big-company employees may also have hard-to-match experience in international business, government regulation, technology management and other valuable fields. But these refugees from big businesses also come with some weaknesses. One weakness is often an expectation that they'll earn more money than you can pay. "Even if the people are willing to take less money, sometimes they don't have a great attitude about it," says Zwirn.

Corporate employees are also more likely to be specialists--unable or unwilling to perform the kind of multitasking that is second nature to every small-business employee. Zwirn recalls a complaint from one ex-IBM manager who was having trouble with his new job at a smaller company. "He didn't like it because people in his last job brought him reports," Zwirn says. "[Now], he had to go get the reports."

If you want to get the benefits of hiring people from big companies while minimizing the negatives, start by making it clear what the job entails. Corporate refugees desperate for security may agree to pay scales, benefits packages and resource restrictions that, in the long run, leave them dissatisfied and performing at less than their peak.

Be equally clear about what the candidate is offering. Don't be dazzled by resumes stuffed with impressive-sounding job titles at well-known corporations. Look for identifiable skills that fit your needs. "If they're so darn good, why are they suddenly willing to work for half what they were getting?" says Wendover. "You have to be skeptical."

If you still aren't clear about the chances for a big-company refugee making it at your company, consider taking the employee on as a temporary worker and transitioning him or her to a permanent employee after a time. If you really want the advantages that corporate experience can bring to your work force, you can probably find a way, Zwirn says. "After all is said and done, people are hiring from big companies and [new hires] are making the successful transition."

Mark Henricks writes on business and technology for leading publications and is author of Not Just a Living.

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