When I wrote my last two "Adventures in growing up" posts in January and February, I intended it to be a monthly series. Then I got distracted by shiny things. But hey, I'm back!

Over the past few years, I have worked in a few different types of professional environments: a medium-large non-profit, a small non-profit, two different universities, a state agency, and now, a large corporation. There have, of course, been similarities between these situations--in some ways, a job is a job. However, what is more interesting to me is the difference in office culture I have experienced at each job, and how I have adapted to that culture.

Perhaps the most telling differences have been in expected dress, compensation, and working hours. Most to least formal dressed work environments: medium-large non-profit; large corporation; small non-profit; state agency; universities. The universities at which I worked had very few pretenses about dress--jeans were just fine, every day. The state agency was a bit pickier, but I was there as a contractor, the rules for me were also a bit more strict than those who were on staff. The case at the large corporation is similar. The most interesting situations have been the non-profits: the larger one was the type of institution that has very wealthy donors, some of whom I interacted with regularly--clothes were important there. The smaller one was less dress-oriented, but still required a higher level of attention to clothes than have most of my other jobs.

I'm surprised to be finding this the case, but I actually prefer the slightly more formal work environments when it comes to dress. Partially that's just because it gives me an excuse to care about how I look, but partially it's that old saw about feeling and acting more professional when you are dressed more professionally. I find that to be oddly true. I am certainly not yearning to wear a suit every day (or, really, ever), but I do enjoy having a certain standard of work dress.

The compensation has been wildly different in the positions I have held, but a factor of several times over. Part of that, of course, is that I have gained experience and skills (and a master's degree) as time has gone on, so I'm worth more in the job market. I've also held different types of jobs. However, some of the compensation differences have been based on type of organization. Non-profits pay less, full stop. And universities and state organizations, while paying more than non-profits, pay less than corporations. Some of these payment differences are mediated by benefits, but even considering that aspect, best to least well paid has been: large corporation, university #1, state agency, university #2, small non-profit, large non-profit.

I've touched on this before, but I'll say it straight out now: there has been, in my professional experience, a direct correlation between how much I am paid and how much respect my work has been given. Of course, that isn't always true, but it has been in my case. Organizations that have been willing to pay me well have also been willing to accept my expertise and grant me the autonomy I need to do my job well. Organizations with lower pay scales have been much more likely to monitor and second-guess me and stand in my way. As much as the actual money itself, having a work environment in which I am respected and trusted is important to me, and I will continue, after my current position ends, to look for higher paying jobs with that in mind.

The jobs to which I have been referring and have been both hourly and salaried. In general, my preference is to work on salary. However, working hourly has, thus far, been more lucrative. Though I haven't experienced the expectation of unpaid overtime myself in any of my positions, I have seen it, especially in the non-profit and academic worlds, and I think it's absolutely wrong. There is a reason people fought so hard to secure the 40-hour work week, and we ought to be respecting it, not just for hourly employees, but for everyone. Expecting your employees, no matter how well-compensated, to regularly work more than full-time is bad policy, and it's one I'd like to see a crack-down on.

Overall, I have been very surprised at what I am beginning to see as my strong preference for working in corporate, rather than non-profit or public sector, positions. I would have guessed it would be the opposite. What I have found, though, is that while the corporate world may pay less lip service to being "family friendly" or "employee oriented," having clear standards of acceptable conduct, hours, and dress, as well as a more generous pay scale, makes for an environment that ends up friendlier.

As I get older and have more job experience under my belt, I continue to surprise myself. I do things now that the fresh-from-college me, or even the fresh-from-grad-school me, wouldn't have considered possible. The constant, Dilbert-esque coffee drinking. The acceptance of daily makeup and heel-wearing. The frequency with which I attend meetings. Immediately post college, I imagined myself a boho professional--a professor, a curator, possibly a journalist. After grad school, I set my sights on work-from-home freelance, making my own schedule and never having to take off my pajamas. I never thought of myself as an "office person," a "cube dweller," or, God help me, a "professional." But I am. I work 9-5, surrounded by gray fabric walls, and it isn't killing me. I probably don't want to do it forever--those original boho professions are starting to sound really good again--but I'm doing it, and well. I like the money, I like the respect, and I don't hate the environment.

My experience, obviously, isn't universal. Some people are extremely happy in non-profit or public sector environments. Personally, I don't rule out work in either type of organization again in the future. I am just happy I now know that the private sector is another option, and one I don't have to fear. In fact, it's likely where I will begin my next job search.

7 Comments

"What I have found, though, is that while the corporate world may pay less lip service to being "family friendly" or "employee oriented," having clear standards of acceptable conduct, hours, and dress, as well as a more generous pay scale, makes for an environment that ends up friendlier."

This has been my experience as well. I prefer to work for large companies, and a friend of mine prefers small, family-run businesses. Not only is my pay significantly more, but my benefits and level of autonomy are much higher - despite the fact that she has multiple certificates and a degree.

I LOVE corporations. My experience is the same as yours, and only confirmed at my last job with a family-owned company that was downright abusive. My corporations have always been professional and fair.

I love dressing up for work! I consider it a costume. I work on my theater company at night and on the weekends, but from 12 - 6 on the weekdays, I'm a front desk receptionist at a small but well-known investment firm. I get paid extremely well and my benefits are stellar...and, yes, they make it quite clear: I'm to sit at the front desk and be lovely. That's what they hired me for. Not too shabby for putting on a pair of nylons and touching up my lipstick after lunch!

I love being a corporate sellout! I hate non-profits & universities! Well no, but the latter two it seems like no one could EVER get fired and there were tons of lifers who'd never had a job anywhere else. This meant they quit doing work 10 years ago and got used to the totally dysfunctional workplace because they didn't realize other places were different.

Obviously I work in an odd situation, but the 2 corporations I have worked at had the most lax dress codes. At libraries they require you to wear shoes as a book could break your toe & you'd sue them. Not so in my corporate worlds.

As a fundraiser, I have worked almost solely in nonprofit since graduating from college. What I have found is that this is often the most "corporate" place to be in a nonprofit--since we're revenue generating, it's often (one of) the most lucrative departments in a nonprofit and also often one of the last to feel any staff cutbacks. The nonprofit I currently work at has some of the best compensation (considering the entire package of salary and benefits) and some of the best technology I've encountered in the field. I don't love being in a cubicle for the first time since 2004, but it's a small price to pay for an overall great working environment.

I think you should do a whole post on corporate dress/dress codes. I'd be interested to hear whether or not they're evolved from since the times of stewardesses in miniskirts/girdles.

Sounds like you are starting to get clear on your personal values, "I like the money, I like the respect". I've found that the better you understand your personal values and are able to align them with the organizations that you are involved with, the more passionate you will be about your work. Lack of alignement creates a very stressful situation, not just at work but in all aspects of our lives.

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