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Corporate vs. Startup HR: What’s Different (and What’s the Same)

August 20, 2020
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As HR professionals advance in their careers, they may go from working at small startups to managing teams at large corporations. HR professionals might also be at a small startup that scales fast, and suddenly go from working with a few employees to hundreds.

No matter which situation applies, there are differences and similarities between HR at small and large companies. By knowing what to expect, HR professionals can prepare themselves accordingly and have a greater chance of succeeding in their roles.

Here are some common ways HR departments can vary between large and small companies.

How They’re Different

1. HR has a dedicated role at large companies.

When a company is first formed, the office manager might handle everything from general office responsibilities to financial duties to what’s traditionally considered HR work, noted Karen Oakey, Director of HR at Fracture, a photo décor brand. On the other hand, larger companies will need to have trained industry professionals with experience to handle daily tasks as well as strategically plan for the company’s future growth.

“The larger the company grows, the more business, legal, and compliance requirements must be built into the foundation without impacting the overall culture of the company,” explained Oakey. “This sounds complicated but it can and must be done at that level.”

2. Large companies don’t experience as much change.

Tim Stein, VP of Human Capital at American Addiction Centers, an addiction treatment center with locations throughout the United States, noted that larger companies have already experienced growing pains. He’s worked with HR employees who get easily frustrated and leave small companies if they are not capable of troubleshooting and finding solutions to common challenges.

“If the company is experiencing growth, [when hiring for HR roles] be sure to interview for skills that will complement the day-to-day challenges and opportunities associated with the growth,” advised Stein. “Also, don’t falsely assume that employees with experience in large companies are a perfect fit for small companies or vice versa.”

3. HR isn't as involved with individuals at larger companies.

HR professionals at larger companies may not personally know all the employees they are working with, said Rolf Bax, HR Manager at resume.io, a resume template website.

At small companies, “they know which of their employees are facing difficulties, and where they need help,” Bax said. “Unlike [at] large companies, employees can access decision-makers easily.”

4. Large and small companies have different priorities.

According to HR strategist Ed Krow, SPHR, CCP, SHRM-SCP, small and large companies have varying HR priorities. Small companies generally focus on compliance, recruiting, and administration of policies, and the regulatory environment and staffing are the primary concerns.

Conversely, large companies, Krow said, “shift their focus to talent management: succession planning, learning and development, performance management, and rewards.”

5. Communication differs at large and small companies.

At large companies, bureaucracy is a real issue. It can be hard for employees to communicate their needs and connect with HR team members. At small companies, that’s not really a problem, said Sue Andrews, HR and business consultant at KIS Finance, a company of independent finance brokers.

“Layers of management can make things more complicated [at large companies],” said Andrews. “While information can flow quickly around a small staff team, HR will need to put more time and effort into ensuring larger staff groups are kept up-to-date and informed if they want staff to feel engaged with the wider organization.”

How They’re Similar

No matter what size a company is, all HR departments will oversee employee relations, recruiting, benefits, training and development, and culture, said Stein.

Additionally, according to Andrews, HR professionals at any level will plan, develop, and deliver the right people solutions to ensure the company meets its objectives.

“Whether you’re developing training solutions, designing communication strategies, or managing staff performance, the same principles apply regardless of the size of the company,” Andrews said. “So regardless of if you’re leading a large HR department or are the sole HR person in your organization, you need to make sure that everything you do is aligned with the needs of the business.”

Bax echoed this sentiment: “Whether it is a small company or a large one, the HR department has a common goal: to make successful strategies to achieve high results, and to create the work environment that is a good fit for the company and its people,” he said.

How HR Professionals Can Adjust to Different Environments

HR professionals will likely work at various-sized companies throughout their careers. When making that pivot — or preparing for growth at their current company — Oakey said it’s best to take on a learner’s mindset.

“Soak in everything you can from HR training, but also become immersed in the business operations,” said Oakey. “This allows you to be a better partner to each department and team.”

Krow added that you also need to learn how to create and implement an HR strategic plan. “Small companies really don’t need one, but large companies cannot operate without one,” he said. “This involves learning the industry and how your people will impact the future of your organization. It goes much deeper than setting up a recruiting plan.”

As a company grows, or an HR professional moves from a small company to a large one, they need to be up to speed with the latest practices in their chosen area of expertise, stressed Andrews. “While you’ll want to maintain a good generalist knowledge, most large companies will expect you to have a particular area of expertise, so you may want to take some additional qualifications in your specialty to prepare for your new role,” she said.


One thing is clear: Regardless of whether an HR professional is working at a large or small company, their focus should be on people first, even if it means putting their own needs aside, Oakey said.

“Often, as HR professionals, in order to do our job properly we must check our personal opinions and biases at the door [to] perform our jobs judiciously,” she said. “This isn’t always easy, and transitioning from a small company to a larger one usually requires a quicker adjustment in this department. Our strategy should always be based on a ‘people first’ approach. This unbiased approach doesn't always align with how we personally feel about things going on around us or in the world, and this is okay.”

By adapting to change, being open-minded, maintaining a “people first” mindset, and shifting your priorities depending upon your role, you can succeed at any company — big or small — and experience tremendous growth and fulfillment in your HR career as a result.