Google Continues to Innovate in Recruiting and Candidate Assessment

There’s no doubt about it: Google is one of the most innovative recruiting organizations on the planet. I’ve written in the past about some of their world-class practices, but in light of recent innovations and global news interest, an update is in order.

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 organization whose growth is supported by a massive recruiting organization. While critics question the efficiency of Google recruiting practices, few question the effectiveness.

More than any other organization, 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 a healthy debate among functional leaders of efficiency versus effectiveness in recruiting.

Google attracts over one million applicants a year, or nearly 130 applicants per employee, an unheard of volume for organizations 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.

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. Categorized in hundreds of blogs as both everything and nothing, they have successfully created an organization 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 recognized by Business Weekas 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%. 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 favorites 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 organization 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 labor force. That approach is taking the work to where the workforce already exists, namely the University of Michigan campus. The initiative took private/public cooperation 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 to respond to every referral within one week of submission. While many organizations design processes to meet the organization’s needs, Google recognized 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 the New York Timeswrote a feature story about it. The article, written by Saul Hansell and published January 3, detailed how the search engine company is implementing a new assessment tool that relies on an algorithm to more accurately identify candidates that resemble existing top performers. While many companies seek to screen out candidates, the new Google candidate assessment approach enables Google to “include” candidates that 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 recognizes 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.

There are several reasons why Google’s new approach is worthy of further study:

  1. 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.
  2. The recruiting team at Google is making the transition from the common “intuition” approach to a scientific, data-based approach to selection. Much like what Dan Hilbert has done at Valero Energy, this change results in decisions made on facts and data.
  3. 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.
  4. 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, “Interviews are a terrible predictor of performance.”)
  5. 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 is smart enough to take advantage of the world-class knowledge and talent on the “business side” by applying it directly to the recruiting process.

Overview of the Algorithm Candidate Screening Model

The new approach to candidate screening was developed by a team that included Laszlo Bock (formerly from GE) and Todd Carlisle (who is speaking at ERE’s Spring Expo in San Diego). 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 (i.e., 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 is quite rare in companies that hire large numbers of professionals.)

Soon, all applicants at Google will be asked to fill out this extensive bio-data 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 organizations. Managers are free to try new approaches, to make huge mistakes, and to celebrate learning from failure. The result of this organizational methodology is a recruiting function that does not confine to traditional approaches.

The focus isn’t on reducing cost per hire by $0.10, but rather on dramatically increasing the success rate of the function to hire individuals capable of becoming top performers. All too often, organizations 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 organizations are realizing this. In late 2006, we began seeing a number of organizations radically rethink what they do.

Google has launched some exciting new practices, and other organizations 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 a role model by helping make Google recruiting more scientific and metrics driven.

(Note: Dr. Sullivan does not now, nor has he ever had, a financial relationship with Google.)

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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