A look inside the Google talent machine

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Internet giant Google has changed the rules of recruitment forever with its attraction and retention strategies. John Sullivan takes a look inside Googles HR strategies and examines why its considered the worlds only corporate recruiting machine

Google, through its branding, PR and recruiting efforts, has made itself so well-known and attractive to professionals from every industry and university that they have essentially changed the game of recruiting forever.

The worlds first recruiting culture

Google has accomplished something that no other corporation has ever accomplished. In less than a handful of years, they have developed what can only be categorised as a recruiting machine. What they have done better than anyone else is to develop the world’s first recruiting culture. What that means is that recruiting and the need for it permeates the entire organisation, from the key leaders on down to the entry-level employees.

As a result of this culture, not only does Google fund recruiting to the point where the function is in a league by itself, but they have also gone to the extraordinary step of changing the way employees work in order to attract and retain the very best.

Working with 20 per cent time

Many organisations have changed their pay or benefits in order to attract better workers, but none has changed every professional job in the company so that the work itself is the primary attraction and retention tool. Rather than letting work, jobs and job descriptions be put together by the “out of touch” people in corporate compensation, Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, HR director Stacy Sullivan and the leadership team at Google have literally crafted every professional job and workplace element so that all employees are working on interesting projects, learning continuously, constantly challenged to do more and feeling that they are adding value.

The key element of changing the work so that the work itself becomes a critical attraction and retention force and driver of innovation and motivation is what Google calls ‘20 per cent work’. There is no concrete definition of what 20 per cent work means, but generally for professional jobs it means that the employee works the equivalent of one day a week on their own, researching individually selected projects that the company funds and supports. Both the Google Groups and Google News products are reported to have started as a result of personal 20 per cent time projects. In addition to being a phenomenal attraction tool, it also keeps their attrition rate at, as one HR executive put it “almost nil”, but its greatest value is that it drives innovation and creativity throughout the organisation.

The worlds largest recruiting budget

Google recruiting is the best-funded recruiting function in any major product-driven corporation. Arnnon Geshuri, the head of recruiting, and Sullivan, have done what can only be classified as an unbelievable job in convincing senior management to fund the recruiting effort beyond that of any corporation in history.

My own calculations indicate that, at times, Google recruitment has a ratio of one recruiter for every 14 employees (14:1). That ratio surpasses the previous record of 65:1, held by Cisco during the first war for talent in the late ‘90s. If on the surface this ratio doesn’t impress you, might I suggest that you compare it to the typically much larger ratio of employees to all HR professionals, which is about 100:1.

The benefits are breathtaking

Google offers spectacular benefits even though they are not designed just for recruiting purposes. Instead, these benefits are also designed to encourage collaboration, to break down barriers between functions and to stimulate individual creativity and innovation.

These benefits do attract some of the “wrong people”, that is, talented individuals who are seeking benefits rather than an opportunity to do their best work, which creates a screening challenge.

The take away for other firms is that, even if you do match Google’s “non-work” benefits (as firms like SAS have almost done), you are not automatically going to attract the very best and the most innovative.

Recruiting structure

Google has plans to nearly double its workforce, growing from approximately 5,000 to 10,000 employees in the near future. The recruitment structure they have designed to enable such growth is, like most successful recruiting organisations, primarily a centralised operations model.

The basic reason why firms use a centralised recruiting function is to ensure that most of the recruiting is done by recruitment professionals, as opposed to generalists, who for the most part don’t have the skills or the attitude to be great recruiters. Centralisation also makes it easier to share top applicants between business units, a key activity which seldom occurs when decentralised generalists execute recruiting.

A key tenet of any successful recruiting function is that the function has the capability to handle in-house the most important and visible positions, that is, executive search. At Google, recruiting is responsible for filling both executive leadership and top-level technical positions.

Because Google believes wholeheartedly in sourcing the best talent that is ferociously sought after by competitors, every element of the recruiting function is abundantly staffed with highly focused professionals.

To ensure that the company has the capability to recruit talent at the capacity needed, the recruiting model has been broken up into very distinct roles, each requiring specialised expertise. These activities, carried out in a highly choreographed manner by teams tied to divisions and business units, include: recruiting research analysts; candidate developers (sourcers); process coordinators; candidate screeners; specialised recruiters for college; specialised recruiters for technical and leadership executive search; specialised international recruiters to be located in Asia and Europe; recruiting program managers; and recruiting project managers.

Such specialisation enables the function to be managed in a way similar to a supply chain.

Some outside consultants have argued that such a large number of recruiters and specialised positions is an indication of inefficiency. Like many things in business, obtaining a specific level of efficiency requires that one makes tradeoffs between output quality and input cost, and at this point in time Google values the quality over the cost. The willingness to fund this recruiting model is a clear indication that talent more than any other input is the most critical at Google, a notion many pay lip service to but few actually execute.

Standard recruiting tools

Google has successfully implemented many of the standard best practice tools found at other companies:

Employee referral: Google’s referral program is without any industry leading features, but the company’s strong brand coupled with its highly enthusiastic workforce makes up for weaknesses in the program.

College recruitment: Google hires a large number of PhDs on the premise that they enjoy exploring areas that no one else has explored. To accomplish this, they have developed a network of direct relationships with over 350 professors at major schools. In addition, Google has an outstanding internship program that has a very high conversion rate to permanent hires.

Professional networking: Google also effectively uses networking groups like Linkedin and other live professional events to recruit top performers.

Recruiter training: Google is one of only a handful of companies that requires most newly hired recruiters to go through extensive recruiter training prior to starting.

Wow recruiting tools

Google employs a variety of impressive recruiting tools that certainly “wowed” me while researching this case study.

AdWords as a recruiting tool: Google’s first “wow” approach is its use of its own Google search tool to find “passive” candidates. Because Google is recognised as the master of search, it’s not surprising that they utilise their own search tool to find top candidates without active resumes. In addition, they attract top performers by placing their own job ads that appear when certain keywords are typed into a search.

Contests as recruiting tools: A second “wow”aspect of Google recruiting is its use of a contest to identify and attract top software engineers. The Google Code Jam, as they call it, is a global online software writing contest that can attract over 7,500 people each year. The top 25 finalists are invited to the Mountain View campus to compete for US$50,000 in prizes as well as a chance to work at Google. The contest is powered by TopCoder, a vendor that helps manage the contest and score the winners.

Brain teasers as recruiting tools: The third “wow” aspect of Google’s recruiting is its creative use of roadside billboards and math tests placed in magazines to garner the attention of math and programming wizards. Google has placed brainteaser billboards in the Silicon Valley and by Harvard Square. The math puzzles on these billboards challenge mathematics-oriented people and get them thinking. Although they do not specifically mention Google, the billboard puzzle does eventually lead interested participants to the Google site.

Friends of Google: The final “wow” recruiting tool is the “friends of Google” system. This tool creates an electronic email network of people that are interested in Google and its products but not necessarily interested in working for the company. By signing up these individuals and then periodically sending them emails about the firm’s products and events, Google can build a relationship with thousands of people that like the firm.

Weaknesses in the Google approach

Google’s primary strength in recruiting comes from the fact that they “change the work” and that they have, and continue to make, an outstanding business case to fund the recruiting organisation at an unparalleled level. But it’s equally important to point out that Google recruiting is not without weaknesses. Some of the current and potential issues facing Google recruiting are outlined below.

Given the relative youth of the company, none of these weaknesses even reach the level of being considered a threat, but in a company whose slogan is “great isn’t good enough”, it’s critical that HR and recruitment management spend some time and resources in the following areas:

Employment branding: Although Google is clearly well-known as a great employer, it is clear that much of that recognition has come as a result of programs and ideas that originated outside of HR. It is critical that HR and recruitment devote resources to developing a formal employment brand strategy and execution plan.

Metrics: At a technology company driven by mathematics and staffed largely with mathematicians, it’s almost unbelievable how both the HR and the recruiting function have dragged their feet on developing metrics. In particular, Google’s inability to track the on-the-job performance of new hires is inexcusable.

Recruiting strategy: Although Google recruiting obviously does great things, those things seem to occur at random and in spite of the fact that there is no formal, well-communicated recruitment strategy. Whether you talk to recruiters or hiring managers at Google, no one seems to be able to clearly articulate the strategy and how it differentiates Google from its talent competitors.

Speed: Almost everyone that has been a candidate at Google comments on how slow the screening, recruiting, and interview process is. The fact that some stock option grants and all new professional hires must be approved by senior management (an activity limited to one day a week) is industry leading in a way that hurts the recruiting effort.

Contingent labour: The number of temps and contractors in the recruiting function at Google is high. The unwillingness to give permanent jobs immediately to recruiters may reduce Google’s ability to get seasoned recruiters, who have mortgages and car payments like the rest of and require a certain level of stability.

Emphasis on youth: Google’s emphasis on youth culture might hurt its ability to attract more senior and experienced personnel. I have heard concerns related to their emphasis on youth from more than one employee, and at least one former worker has accused them of age discrimination.

Employee benefits at Google

A partial list of Google's "I-bet-you-don't-have-that-where-you-work" benefits include:

Flexible hours for nearly every professional employee

Casual dress everyday (and this goes well beyond business casual)

Employees can bring their dogs to work, everyday

Onsite physician and dental care

Health benefits that begin as soon as an employee reports for work

Free massage and yoga

Shoreline running trails

Stock options everywhere

Free drinks and snacks everywhere (espresso, smoothies, Red Bull, health drinks, kombucha tea, you name it)

Free meals, including breakfast, lunch and dinner (some have described this as a feast with multiple locations and world-class chefs, including one that cooked for the Grateful Dead)

Three weeks' vacation during the first year

Free recreation everywhere, including video games, foosball, volleyball and pool tables

Valet parking for employees

Onsite car wash and detailing

Maternity and parental leave (plus new moms and dads are able to expense up to US$500 for take-out meals during the first four weeks that they are home with their new baby)

Employee referral bonus program

Near site childcare centre

Backup childcare for parents when their regularly scheduled child care falls through

Free shuttle service to several San Francisco and East and SouthBay locations (San Francisco is 45 miles away from the main campus)

Fuel efficiency vehicle incentive program (US$5,000 assistance if you buy a hybrid)

Onsite dry cleaning, plus a coin-free laundry room

A Friday TGIF all-employee gathering where the founders frequently speak

A 401k investment program

A "no tracking of sick days" policy

An onsite gym to work off all of the snacks

Dr John Sullivan is professor and head of the HR program at San FranciscoStateUniversity, and is a noted author, speaker and advisor to corporations around the globe.