Growing the Google talent machine

by 06 Feb 2007

Google is one of the most innovative recruiting organisations on the planet. In light of recent initiatives, John Sullivan takes another look inside the Google talent machine and explores its world-class practices

In less than nine years, Google has grown from a tiny dorm room entity that couldn’t attract anyone interested in buying the technology, to a global organisation whose growth is supported by a massive recruiting organisation. While critics question the efficiency of Google recruiting practices, few question the effectiveness.

More than any other organisation, Google is credited with changing the game when it comes to recruiting leading edge talent. Their approaches have forced reactions among nearly every other leading high technology firm trying to attract the cream of the crop, and encouraged healthy debate among functional leaders of efficiency versus effectiveness in recruiting.

Google attracts more than one million applicants a year, or nearly 130 applicants per employee – an unheard of volume for organisations of their size and age. Their recruiting machine is geared to produce approximately 800 hires per month, a volume that could double the company’s size in a single year. Using a human-powered model, Google has already screened millions of candidates, assessed thousands, and hired more than 10,000 professionals.

Googles recruiting machine

Some of the approaches that enable the Google recruiting machine to produce include:

Employment branding. Perhaps their most significant accomplishment is how they have built an incredible employment brand. The Google culture is one of legend. Categorised in hundreds of blogs as both everything and nothing, they have successfully created an organisation capable of delivering a 1:1 employee/employer experience. From homemakers to finance professionals to cutting edge engineers, Google is one of the top employers with regards to desirability. They were recently recognised by Business Week as the top employer of choice for college students and have appeared near the top in a multitude of rankings for MBAs, women, engineers and diverse individuals. While the company disdains advertising about itself, it considers the number of blog postings discussing Google’s culture a key measure of brand strength.

Retention. Because Google can create such a unique experience for every employee and can provide an opportunity for professionals to focus on what they do best, turnover is less than 5 per cent. While in the early days stock options might have been the dominant retention driver, employees hired recently receive only market-based pay and marginal stock participation via “Google stock units”. They embody the rationale that money isn’t the issue. Their employee loyalty is simply phenomenal.

Creativity. The Google recruiting team continues to come up with creative approaches. One of my favourites occurred in the Spring of 2006 when they retooled their search portal to deliver a targeted recruiting message to students and faculty of targeted schools. When individuals would access the Google search portal, Google servers would identify the IP address of the visitor, look up what organisation the IP address belonged to, and alter the portal appearance if the visitor was accessing the portal from one of the university campuses Google actively recruits from.

The approach, while not new, was implemented in Google’s typical minimalist style. They added a single text line just below the search box that asked whether the visitor was graduating and whether they were interested in a job at Google. The micro-targeting approach was simple and unobtrusive. Another example, while again not being unique, further signifies the extent to which Google is responsive to the labour force. That approach is taking the work to where the workforce already exists, namely the University of Michigan campus. The initiative took private/public co-operation to an entirely new level, ensuring that students would have access to education inherently suited to real employer demands and that Google would have unfettered access to some of the brightest minds.

Employee referral program. 2006 marked a banner year for investment in Google’s employee referral program. Leveraging research on best practices, they retooled their program from top to bottom. The program is now designed to deliver a world-class candidate experience, be proactive, and respond to every referral within one week of submission. While many organisations design processes to meet the organisation’s needs, Google recognised that a successful referral program must be designed to meet the needs of employees and referrals first.

Data-driven approach to candidate assessment. The latest innovation from Google’s recruiting function is so unique that TheNew York Timeswrote a feature story about it. The article, written by Saul Hansell and published on 3 January, detailed how the search engine company is implementing a new assessment tool that relies on an algorithm to more accurately identify candidates who resemble existing top performers. While many companies seek to screen out candidates, the new Google candidate assessment approach enables Google to include candidates who might otherwise be overlooked. The algorithm evaluates a much wider range of potential success predictors than can normally be discerned from most resumes. This innovation recognises and resolves a major flaw inherent to typical assessment methodologies that rely too heavily on academic grades, SAT scores, degrees from top schools, prior industry experience and subjective interview results.

Behind the machine

There are several reasons why Google’s new approach is worthy of further study: Google had an incredible track record and no compelling reason to make a major shift in its recruiting approach. It takes extraordinary leadership to make a significant shift in your approach to recruiting without the pressure of business losses, lawsuits or union pressure. Google decided to get significantly better long before any business pressure made them change.

The recruiting team at Google is making the transition from the common “intuition” approach to a scientific, data-based approach to selection. By broadening the range of factors considered when screening candidates, the resulting slate of hires will become more diverse and the number of innovative people (who don’t have near perfect academic credentials and industry pedigree) who get selected will improve.

This approach will undoubtedly reduce the reliance on interviews, which have ridiculously low rates of success in predicting on-the-job performance. Laszlo Bock, Google’s vice-president of people operations, routinely admits that “interviews are a terrible predictor of performance”.

Google is in the search engine business, and as a result, they routinely use algorithms to identify the best search results on the business side of the enterprise. By adopting commonly used internal business tools into the recruiting process, the recruiting function sent a message to managers that recruiting understands the business model, as well as that it’s smart enough to take advantage of the world-class knowledge and talent on the “business side” by applying it directly to the recruiting process.

The algorithm candidate screening model

The new approach to candidate screening was developed by a team that included Laszlo Bock (formerly of GE) and Todd Carlisle. The goal was to identify all of the factors that predict future on-the-job performance and success.

The basic approach is quite simple. First, you survey current employees on a variety of characteristics and traits, including teamwork, biographical information, past experiences and accomplishments (that is, have they started a company, written a book, won a championship, set a record?).

Next, you statistically determine which of these many traits your top performers and most impactful employees exhibit that differentiates them from bottom performing and average employees.

Finally, you develop an online survey to gather the predictive information from applicants. Then each candidate’s biodata survey and resumes are screened electronically and given a score between zero and 100 based on how many of the top performance indicators each candidate possesses. It’s important to note that using biodata to screen candidates is not a new process, but it is quite rare in companies that hire large numbers of professionals.

Soon, all applicants at Google will be asked to fill out this extensive biodata questionnaire. While some may find it a little inconvenient, the net result will be a more scientific approach to selection, which will over time translate into more productive hires and fewer “misses” of top performers who can do the job in spite of their lack of stellar academic qualifications.

Final thoughts

The Google culture is unique in that it questions almost every assumption or process that governs traditional organisations. Managers are free to try new approaches, to make huge mistakes and to celebrate learning from failure. The result of this organisational methodology is a recruiting function that is not confined to traditional approaches.

The focus isn’t on reducing cost per hire by 10 cents, but rather on dramatically increasing the success rate of the function to hire individuals capable of becoming top performers. All too often, organisations become overly obsessed with efficiency and lose sight of why the function exists in the first place, a reality that leads to numerous expectations being ignored. Many organisations are realising this. In late 2006, we began seeing a number of organisations radically rethink what they do.

Google has launched some exciting new practices, and other organisations are poised to follow. All assumptions in recruiting must be challenged, and reliance on processes architected nearly a century ago must end. In the near future, all recruiting decisions will be based on data.

Our industry owes thanks to Laszlo and Todd for raising the bar and becoming role models by helping make Google recruiting more scientific and metrics driven.

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