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Recruiting and retaining 'the best and brightest' is the goal of most companies, and that explains why, for most companies, doing so is a tough job.

Unless, of course, you're one of the most recognized companies in your industry and can offer your employees a top-notch salary, the ability to work on interesting things, and a modicum of "I work at..." prestige.

But even prominent companies can find recruiting and retaining employees difficult. Case in point: Google. It has several problems on both fronts.

Recruiting

Don Dodge, who used to work for Microsoft as a startup evangelist, changed teams earlier this year. In a blog post the other day, he detailed Google's recruiting process. Some of the gems:

The recruiter may ask for your SAT scores and college GPA, if this is a technical engineering role. Yes, even though I have over 20 years of experience...they still asked for my numbers.

You may also be asked some questions like “How many golf balls can fit in a school bus?” or “There are 8 balls. Seven of them weigh the same, but one is heavier. Using a balance scale, how do you find the heavier ball with just two weighings?”

Every interviewer submits their feedback in a standard format about the candidate and assigns a numerical ranking to the candidate. The feedback is reviewed by the recruiter and compared to feedback on other candidates for this job and similar roles.

Hiring decisions are made by hiring committees. This means that no single hiring manager can make a potentially bad decision by themselves.

The culture remains strong and true because the hiring process requires hiring only the best fit, the people who have that unique “Googley” character.

According to Dodge, Google's system works. But does it? Google is increasingly watching as competitors (some theoretical) poach employees (see below), and more importantly, despite its efforts to create new products and services in other markets, still derives the vast majority of its revenue from the same source as it did a decade ago. In other words, Google is a one-trick pony. A big one-trick pony, but a one-trick pony nonetheless.

In my opinion, Google's inability to move successfully beyond search/advertising as a business is a direct result of the homogenous corporate culture it has built and tries to maintain through its recruiting process. Contrary to what some might argue, you can maintain a corporate culture without trying to ensure that every employee fits a particular mold. Obviously, a homogenous corporate culture offers some advantages, and may be more comfortable, but the disadvantages are significant.

In particular, a homogenous culture often prevents a company from evolving, innovating and taking worthwhile risks. When every employee is cut from the same cloth, has similar 'personality traits' (eg. that "'Googley' character"), and the company values consensus over healthy disagreement, it's difficult for the company to think differently, or spot opportunity brought about by market changes. Yet thinking differently and spotting opportunity are two things far more likely to occur when people with different backgrounds, experiences and personalities get together in a single room and embrace the ensuing intellectual tension.

By most accounts I've read, Google falls into the trap of believing that the best fit is the easiest fit. That's not the case. Building a corporate culture around shared values deeper than IQs, collegiate pedigrees and personality traits may be hard to do, but it's well worth it. When Google does that, we just might see less irrational copycatting and more innovation.

Retaining

One of the potential Google competitors that has been poaching Google employees is Facebook. According to some reports, Google is offering significant cash bonuses to employees who receive employment offers from Facebook in an effort to keep them from leaving.

While some have questioned these reports, if we assume for a moment that they're even half accurate, which doesn't seem too far-fetched, one might conclude that Google is simply trying to fight a harsh reality: in the world of technology, and Silicon Valley in particular, talent often flocks to the gold mine perceived to have the greatest extractable reserves.

Operative word: perceived. Facebook may receive a rich valuation on Wall Street if and when it goes public, but it's unclear how well employees being hired today will make out. Certainly, they're unlikely to make out like Facebook's early employees.

For Google, none of this matters. The type of employee who will jump ship to Facebook in hopes of a one-off windfall isn't the kind of employee who is a good fit for Google at this stage of its life anyway. Google is a mature company by most measures, and what it can offer employees, both in terms of tangibles and intangibles, is going to be very different than a relatively immature company like Facebook. In other words, it's really not about the money.

Until and unless Google recognizes this, it risks a lot in its effort to avoid the inconvenient truth that as companies evolve, their workforces generally have to evolve too. By throwing money at employees who should be allowed to leave, Google rewards them despite the fact that they realistically won't be long-term contributors anyway. In doing so, it ignores the employees that matter (read: those who are more interested in working for a tech company with almost limitless resources than one with a finite amount of pre-IPO stock).

Conclusion

Google may be one of the world's most prominent tech companies, but it still has a lot to learn about recruiting and retaining employees. That will only become more evident in the coming years. Whether Google adapts and adopts a smarter HR strategy will likely be one of the factors in whether the company remains a Silicon Valley innovator or remains a one-trick pony whose cash cow funds fun but profitless experimentation.

Patricio Robles

Published 16 September, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2379 more posts from this author

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Nik Makris

I don't agree that Google is a one-trick-pony. 

Google make their money from advertising.  Most of Google's products encourage users to stay within the Google ecosphere thereby increasing Google's ad impressions and revenue.  They may not earn money directly but they contribute none-the-less.

Google Adsense places Google's adverts on partner web sites, Google's Feedburner places ads on RSS feeds.  Gmail shows ads based on your email contents. Blogger allows blog publishers to earn revenue via Adsense.  Youtube runs ads within videos... etc

They also have a rather good search engine.

almost 6 years ago

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Bandicoot

Cute article, Patricio. However I am calling you on the fact that this is a barely original re-hash of a TechCrunch article that revisited this exact theme yesterday morning.

Tepid.

almost 6 years ago

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Richard Dale

Nik I would disagree with you. Everything that Google does eventually coms back down to its Google Adwords product of which adsense is a part as do Youtube ads via its content network. i.e. the better the search engine, the more people use it, the more people click on adwords ads which fuels long-terms budgets from brands towards adwords and hence google profits.

almost 6 years ago

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Andrew McCluskey

Before I saw the light & made the move for rock stardom - I was a product of Marks & Spencer's graduate recruitment program - back in '92.  The recruitment process was very similar to the one described above - criteria had been established to produce the most effective M&S manager, based on behavioral assessments of previously successful individuals - candidates were scored by groups of assessors and those hired supposedly had the traits of what it took to become a successful M&S executive.

Problem is - you end up recruiting for your past successes, not your future challenges.  The management culture in '99 was still rooted in the 80's and the whole system was dramatically unprepared for the changing global economy and flattening of social structures that the new technology delivered - as a result M&S was hit much harder than other less rigid retailers.

You'd think that with all those high IQ's and perfect pedigrees, there might be some corporate scholars at Google that might wish to learn from history, rather than repeat it.

almost 6 years ago

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Craig McGregor

Google is defeinitely a one-product (search) business. Relatively minor add-ons like YouTube don't make any significant contribution to revenue or profit.

100 years ago, Google would be Tarmacadam. A great & growing success while the huge new road infrastructure is being built, but to survive longer term, needing to properly diversify - in Macadam's case, into civil construction, engineering, etc.

Of course the world moves a lot, lot faster now, and I see Google's future more along the software/platfrom route, i.e. Android, with the attendant opportunity for device ubiquity that propelled Bill Gate's meteroic trajectory.

almost 6 years ago

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Liz

Attracting first class talent and then retaining it in the current climate is a tough job but is by no means an impossible one.  Employees have become more sophisticated during the last downturn and some indeed have had their fingers burnt and will now think twice! An employer that can offer a top notch salary, interesting work and the prestige of working for a world famous brand may not be able to rely solely on these factors moving forward - innovation or not. At the end of the day there are so many factors that influence an individual's attraction to a company and then their decision to stay put, but most employees want the following from their employer: communication and engagement. Their voice to be heard and it have an impact, the opportunity for development and a culture that is inspiring, rewarding and recognising. I believe that employees are realising that to reach their ultimate career goals, they no longer need to work for the prestige and prominent tech leaders, but in fact smaller, more entrepreneurial companies that can adapt faster can help you realise your potential whilst working with like minded individuals and have more fun doing so whether that involves consistent and world class product/service development.

almost 6 years ago

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