When Victoria, an executive assistant who lives in Germantown, starts her new job in a few weeks, she will single-handedly boost the size of the staff by more than 10 percent.

Her new employer, a medical technology start-up that's inching toward profitability, has a staff of just eight people. "It's the smallest company outside of a neighborhood store that I have ever worked for," she said in a recent e-mail. She spoke on condition that her last name not be used because she hasn't given notice to her current employer.

About half of U.S. private-sector workers are employed at businesses with fewer than 500 employees, according to the Small Business Administration. Their ranks include computer programmers, shop clerks and administrative assistants.

Working for a small employer has its advantages, such as greater flexibility in work schedules and an easy sense of camaraderie. Victoria, 35, said one thing she noticed in her interviews at her new job was how the workers have a very "familial" relationship. When there's news to share, "they actually talk to each other, instead of sending out a notice."

Another advantage is the chance to take on more responsibility, said Kate Wendleton, president of the Five O'Clock Club, a career counseling company. "You'll be expected to pitch in more, and you can develop broader experience," she said. As many people who joined start-ups can attest, it can be exhilarating to be part of a small company that's growing quickly.

Of course, working for a small organization also has its disadvantages.

Small companies tend to pay less and offer fewer benefits than their large competitors. The benefits disparity is mostly a matter of scale. Managing health insurance and retirement plans for just a few people can be cost-prohibitive.

If the company is growing quickly, you'll likely have a chance to advance your own career along with it. But if it's not -- and many small business owners like being small -- you could stagnate. A smaller company also won't offer as many opportunities to change career paths while staying with the same employer.

You'll also give up the name recognition on your resume that comes from working for big companies, Wendleton said. Some people get around that by starting their careers at a big company, to build the credibility that can come from working for a well-known firm, then switching to someplace smaller.

Finally, that personal touch that many people say they prefer about small employers can get, well, too personal. It can be hard to maintain a separation between work and personal life when there are only a few of you in the office each day. And in such intimate quarters, you are more at the mercy of your boss's mood swings than you would be in a bigger shop. "Some wacky owners treat their companies like their own little fiefdoms," Wendleton said.

Because of these differences, looking for a job at a small employer is a bit different.

For one, the hiring process is likely to be a lot less formal, especially with the tiniest firms. The human resources "department" is more likely to be the company's founder and her part-time assistant than an office full of people dedicated to sorting through stacks of resumes and cover letters. There won't likely be any personality tests of the sort that big corporations have been known to use to find out if you're an ax murderer or embezzler.

Small companies often make decisions much more quickly than big ones. Victoria said that was her experience. "I interviewed, had my references checked and had a job offer within a week," she said.

Also, small companies' jobs probably won't be advertised in the usual ways, so don't devote too much time to sifting through ads on big national sites like Monster.com. Instead think locally. Victoria said she found her job through the D.C. branch of CraigsList.org. Local newspaper classifieds -- online or print -- could also be useful.

But the best way to get a job at a small company might very well be the direct approach. Find a place where you want to work and send the company an e-mail or letter. Call or stop by if it's appropriate.

A big opportunity may be waiting for you at one of those little companies.

Join Mary Ellen Slayter for Career Track Live, an online discussion of issues facing young workers, at www.washingtonpost.com on Nov. 7 at 11 a.m.