A Case Study of Google Recruiting

“Disruptive Technology” and Strategic “Disruptive Recruiting”

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.

If you know anything about technology, you know that people in the field use the term “disruptive technology” for technologies like Apple’s iPod, which has almost overnight changed the entire technology and entertainment marketplace to the point where everyone must pay attention to what that firm is doing. Google has created the same phenomenom in the form of a “disruptive approach” to work and recruiting, an approach so different and so compelling that if you don’t pay attention and attempt to emulate some of the things they’re doing, you might soon lose some of the very best employees you have.

I urge you to read on and to see some of the disruptive and breathtaking things Google is doing.

The World’s 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 categorized as a “recruiting machine.” They still have a ways to go, but what they have done so far can only be categorized as amazing.

Now, Google still doesn’t have the best sales and marketing strategy (FirstMerit Bank does), nor are they the best when it comes to the use of metrics (Valero Energy is). But what they have done better than anyone else is to develop the world’s first “recruiting culture” (see my previous writings on this subject). What that means is that recruiting and the need for it permeates the entire organization. Not just the recruiting function or the HR organization, but the entire company — 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. (Note: It might be credible to argue that Cisco in the late 90s had the world’s first “recruiting culture” but since the exit of Michael McNeal, Janel Canepa, Randall Birkwood et al, that function has long since been dismantled to below “K-Mart levels,” so it’s probably a moot issue.)

Google Has Changed Work Itself With “20% Time”

Many organizations have changed their pay or benefits in order to attract better workers, but no one has changed every professional job in the company just 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 and Sergey as everyone calls them), 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 work
  • Learning continuously
  • Constantly challenged to do more
  • 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% work.” There is no concrete definition of what 20% 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 Google Groups and Google News products are reported to have started as a result of personal 20% time projects. Other firms, like Genentech and 3M, have utilized similar programs, and although I’ve spent time at both firms, I find the Google approach to be clearly superior.

Despite not being clearly publicized on their website, it is so easy to understand and so compelling that just the mention of 20% time excites applicants and current employees like no other program I’ve ever come across. In addition to being a phenomenal attraction tool, it also keeps their retention rate at, as one HR executive put it “almost nil.”

But its greatest value is that it drives innovation and creativity throughout the organization. At Google, innovation is expected of everyone in every function, not just product development. The 20% time, along with the expectation of continuous and disruptive innovation, has driven the company’s phenomenal success in product and service innovation. Yes, in this rare case, HR activities and policies are actually driving corporate business success.

One Thousand Millionaires

I find that most people who have never visited Google think that the primary attraction tool and driver of retention at Google is the phenomenal income derived from employee stock options. Yes, it is a fact that Google created an estimated 1,000 millionaire employees when they went public (they could be billionaire employees by the time you read this case study, if the stock price keeps growing and its current rate!).

But rather than driving success, I have found (as I also found at previous stock-growth powerhouses like Charles Schwab, Intel, Cisco, and Microsoft) that rather than contributing to success, the money also has negative impacts. The public awareness of such widely held wealth among employees actually brings in a volume of resumes from people who want to “work for the money” rather than the joy of being at the firm that celebrates innovation more than any other company on the planet. Other ways that the wealth is distracting include the difficulty of motivating and managing individuals with sudden wealth and the almost inevitable “us versus them” mentality that is caused by the significant wealth differential between people hired before and after the IPO.

My conclusion is that stock options are not the primary attractor of top talent at Google. Instead, it’s the work.

The World’s Largest Recruiting Budget

Google recruiting is the best-funded recruiting function in any major product-driven corporation. This is not in a misstatement. Arnnon Geshuri, the head of recruiting, and Stacy Sullivan, the director of HR, 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 1 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, I might suggest that you compare it to the typically much larger ratio of employees to all HR professionals, which is about 100:1. Because “building a business case” is an essential factor for building a recruiting culture (or even for having a strategic impact), their funding level puts Google in a class by itself!

The Benefits Are Breathtaking

Before I highlight the extraordinary benefits that Google offers, it is important to note that although these benefits are certainly so breathtaking that they do in fact get almost every potential applicant’s attention, 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. In addition, some also argue that such a wealth of benefits and opportunities to play distracts less-focused workers from their jobs.

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. To do that you also need a strong “employment brand” and jobs that are designed to continually challenge and grow employees.

A partial list of Google’s “I bet you don’t have that where you work” benefits include:

  • Flex hours for nearly every professional employee
  • Casual dress everyday (and this goes well beyond business casual)
  • Employees can bring their dogs to work, everyday
  • On-site physician
  • On-site 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 $500 for take-out meals during the first four weeks that they are home with their new baby)
  • Employee referral bonus program
  • Near site child care center
  • Back-up child care for parents when their regularly scheduled child care falls through
  • Free shuttle service to several San Francisco and East and South Bay locations (San Francisco is 45 miles away from the main campus)
  • Fuel efficiency vehicle incentive program ($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
  • Employee interest groups (formed by Google employees, these are all over the map and are said to include Buffy fans, cricketers, Nobel prize winners, and a wine club)
  • An onsite gym to work off all of the snacks

Note: These benefits are not all available to employees who do not work on Google’s Silicon Valley main campus.

So what else drives the excellence of Google’s recruiting efforts? Next week I’ll look at Google’s approach to referrals, international recruiting, and employment branding, as well as some weaknesses in the Google approach.

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.

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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