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.