HR at Google: A Q&A with Laszlo Bock

Laszlo Bock on hiring, the company’s famous culture and the future of HR.

By John Scorza Nov 1, 2015
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HR Magazine November 2015Year after year, Google tops the lists of the greatest places to work. That kind of track record doesn’t come about by happenstance. It’s the result of a culture that the company fervently promotes and ferociously protects. Laszlo Bock, Google’s senior vice president of people operations, says, “We’re always, always paranoid about what’s going on with the culture.” In the end, the company’s culture hinges on the people who work and thrive at Google. Bock, author of Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead(Twelve, 2015), shares some of his insights with HR Magazine.

What sets Google’s hiring strategy apart from strategies at other companies?

There are two differences we aspire to. First, we make our recruiting process as objective as possible. We try to prevent bias when screening candidates, for example, by ignoring what kind of names they have. During interviewing, we use structured questions that will provide a statistically valid determination of whether the person can do the job based on very clear definitions for what every position requires. We also don’t let managers make hiring decisions. Hiring committees choose the candidate without the manager’s input in order to remove bias.

Second, we relentlessly test and improve our processes using academic-quality rigor and science. We want to prove that what we’re doing works.

How would describe the culture at Google?

It comes down to three elements: a mission that matters, transparency and voice.

Google’s mission—to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful—is aspirational and meaningful. It’s not just about making a buck. That’s something that universally people need to connect to in almost any business.

As for transparency, it’s part of everything we do. For example, we give engineers access to almost our entire code base on day one. Google employees get to see the presentation that was given to the board of directors. Our belief is that if you have good people—and if you believe that people are fundamentally good—they’re going to make better decisions by being exposed to what is going on in the organization. And we’re repaid because teams tend to share their work with other teams, which means less duplication and more efficiency, creativity and collaboration.

The final component of the culture is the notion of voice. Our employees are not just here for the ride. Rather, they have an obligation to make their voices heard and help make this place great.

What lessons did you learn at General Electric that you took to Google?

How important it is to know your people. Former GE CEO Jack Welch famously spent half his time getting to know the folks on the ground, learning their hopes and fears.

That’s important when it comes to recognition. When you want to acknowledge employees for their work, most people say they prefer $500 in cash to a concert ticket or gift card. Yet, if I am acquainted with someone well enough to know that she is a huge Taylor Swift fan, for the same $500 I can get box seats for her and her family at Taylor’s next concert. In the end employees will end up happier if you give them an experience—something personal and nonfinancial. But it only works if you know what makes your people tick.

How would you describe Google’s approach to compensation?

We believe in providing exceptional rewards to exceptional people. Our pay curves are exponential. That means that you don’t get twice the bonus for doing twice as good a job; you get maybe three times the bonus, and it scales up from there.

Your very best people are not two or three times better than average. They’re five or 10 or 20 times better. It’s an error to do what a lot of organizations do, which is to give people 10 or 20 percent more. You have to recognize how extraordinary they are and reward them in much the same way the market would.

How do you encourage risk-taking at Google?

It’s really important to take risks. As human beings we’re not wired that way. Our natural tendency is to do the thoughtful, conservative thing. But Google wants an environment that attracts bold, entrepreneurial people. One of the ways we drive that behavior is by making it OK to fail.

For example, the entrepreneur Astro Teller, who runs Google X, an innovation lab within Google, tells the story about Project Loon, which is our balloon-based Wi-Fi product. Before the project launched, he told the team to imagine that everything went wrong in the worst possible way. Then he said, “Now think about what would have had to have happened for us to fail that badly.” So the team documented everything that would have gone wrong to generate this huge failure. Then they made sure that none of those things would happen—and the launch was successful. Another executive, Jeff Huber, would spend half of his weekly staff meetings talking about failures: “What went wrong last week? What did we learn from it?”

The idea behind both of these approaches is to destigmatize failure so that it’s less painful. You want people to feel OK taking what our CEO Larry Page would refer to as “moon shots.” Even if you don’t get all the way to the moon, you will have still done something exceptional.

How should HR evolve?

There’s an emerging role for HR. We must make sure decisions are grounded in reality, in fact. For example, part of HR’s mandate should be to identify people who make teams better. Who is behind the scenes making things more successful but shying away from the limelight? There’s not a lot of valid science that can guide you when you’re putting a team together or facing other business problems. It seems like there’s a huge opportunity for HR to be able to honestly describe what’s really going on and to present the science and the facts that solve some of those issues—to prove that freedom makes people more productive or that our hiring process is biased.

What’s your leadership philosophy?

If you give people freedom, they will amaze you.

John Scorza is associate editor of HR Magazine.​

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