A Case Study of Google Recruiting, Part 2

Recruiting Structure

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

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

A key tenet of any excellent recruiting function is that the function has the capability to handle in-house the most important and visible positions, (i.e. executive search). At Google, recruiting is responsible for filling both executive leadership and top-level technical positions. The executive group is notably headed up by Mike Strong, one of the best recruiting leaders I have ever met.

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. They realize that the volume and caliber of talent they desire is not going to be mined from a job board, resume bank, or general recruitment advertising (something Google consciously avoids.)

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 specialized 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
  • Specialized recruiters for college
  • Specialized recruiters for technical and leadership executive search
  • Specialized international recruiters to be located in Asia and Europe
  • Recruiting program managers
  • Recruiting project managers

Such specialization enables the function to be managed in a way similar to a supply chain. The specialized positions allow Google to manage a high volume of resumes, estimated to exceed half a million each year. without degrading either the candidate or hiring manager experience.

Some outside consultants have argued that such a large number of recruiters and specialized positions is an indication of inefficiency, but I have not found that to be true. Like all things in business, obtaining a specific level of efficiency requires that one make 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.

Since, however, Google’s recruiting and HR metrics are “underdeveloped,” for lack of a better word, it’s difficult to make an accurate assessment as to whether their approach is producing new hires with exceptional on-the-job performance. All that can be said to quality of hire at this point is that Google managers believe they are getting it, a perception few other organizations seem to be able to develop.

Like many young firms experiencing rapid growth, Google has been slow in forming its international recruiting unit, but with the appointment of Jason Dellinger, an up-and-coming star, it looks like it will develop into one of the best global recruiting functions in the world. Mr. Dellinger is currently implementing an ambitious plan to attract the very best recruiters simultaneously in both Asia and Europe. His plan provides for the needed degree of consistency in recruiting around the globe while simultaneously allowing a reasonable amount of local flexibility to meet unique market needs.

“Wow” Recruiting Tools

As you might expect, Google employs a variety of impressive recruiting tools that certainly “wowed” me while I was performing 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 recognized as the “master of search,” it’s not surprising that they utilize 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 (in a fashion just like the sponsored product ads that we’re all familiar with). Anyone can do this by “buying keywords” (AdWords technology). For example, if someone types in a search that includes the words nurse and Phoenix, it’s highly likely that the person doing the search is either a recruiter looking for a nurse in Phoenix or a nurse professional that is looking for nursing position in Phoenix. Smart companies can thus buy keywords in order to identify and recruit smart recruiters or to find nurse candidates for the Phoenix area. These types of searches are even more effective if you place your job opening announcements around searches that include words like “becoming a great nurse” or “awards for nursing excellence” because these types of searches are indications of a professional that is striving to become one of the best. Google has also placed position announcements on searches that include the name of top Google scientists and engineers.
  • 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 $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. The concept itself is just brilliant. What better way to assess potential hires than to have them write code that is relevant to your firm’s problems? In addition to being a great recruiting tool, the publicity related to the contest helps further strengthen the employment brand of being innovative and creative. Another interesting aspect of the contest is that it demonstrates that the winners seldom come from noted U.S. universities. The information gathered on participant education can be used to better refine the college recruiting model so that it also includes lesser-known European and international schools that have a proven ability to produce graduates capable of producing simulated on-the-job performance.
  • 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 “brain teaser” billboards in the Silicon Valley and by Harvard Square. The math puzzles on these billboards challenge math-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. In addition, Google has placed math and problem solving tests in magazines read by mathematicians as well as Linux and open-source programmers. Not only do the tests create a buzz (again, Google does not focus on traditional advertising) among Google’s target community, but it also results in direct hires.
  • “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 among thousands of people that like the firm. After building and maintaining relationships with these individuals over time, recruiters eventually begin to utilize the membership list as a source for referrals and potential hires.

Standard Recruiting Tools

In addition to the “wow” recruiting approaches above, Google also 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 recruiting. 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. (Internship conversions typically have one of the highest success rates of any hiring source, according to my own research.)
  • 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. Most of the training at Google is handled by the exceptional group headed by James Duran, whom I call “the godfather of recruiting.”

Some 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 organization 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 recruiting 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. The only long-term recruiting tool that is available to any firm is employment branding. It is critical that HR and recruiting 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. Everyone in recruiting must be more cynical and learn to make decisions based on data, not intuition. In a company whose slogan is “great is not good enough,” the use of metrics is an absolute requirement.
  • 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. Having a written recruiting plan and a superior strategy that focuses on building and maintaining a competitive advantage is essential.
  • 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. Excessive approvals at the top and the related time to fill issues must be addressed as the company becomes larger and more global.
  • Contingent labor. 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. One of the net results of this policy seems to be a disproportionately large number of “rookie” recruiters who learn as they go.
  • Emphasis on youth. Google’s emphasis on “youth culture” might hurt its ability to attract more senior and experienced personnel. I 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.

Perhaps the most surprising area in need of significant attention is Google’s corporate careers site. Don’t get me wrong, it does have features that many sites don’t have, including streaming video of the headquarters site and a few narrative personal profiles. But for one of the world’s leading technology companies, it gives the impression that HR is exempt from utilizing the latest in Web technology. The passion and excitement of the employees and the campus just don’t come through on the job site. Position descriptions are dull. Even the information on Google’s record-breaking benefits is static, with no opportunity to actually get more information about them. There is no personalization on the site.

I’ve had several people that know Google look at the site and almost universally they say it is just a little better than pedestrian. It certainly doesn’t reflect the excellence of the employees and the excitement of working at Google. That’s a shame, because Google has in most other aspects certainly built one of the most impressive corporate recruiting machines the world has ever seen.

Author’s Note: If this article stimulated your thinking and provided you with actionable tips, please take a minute to follow or connect with Dr. Sullivan on LinkedIn.

Part 1

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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