Google finds that in hiring practices, what’s old is new again.

Google hiring practices
Google Gone Retro: Its hiring practices look more familiar than different today.

Has Google made an about-face when it comes to the way it hires staff?

Over the years, there have been numerous articles written about Google’s unorthodox and highly selective recruitment and interviewing process

The company seemed to take a certain delight in the degree to which it subjected job candidates to mind-bending suitability tests and humiliating proctology-like HR examinations.

So I was a bit surprised to read this June 19, 2013 article in the New York Times, in which staff business reporter Adam Bryant published excerpts from an interview he had with Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google.

A major objective of the interview was to determine to what degree so-called “Big Data” can be used to help find the right candidates fill leadership and managerial positions in companies.

Instead of giving us all sorts of ways in which Big Data is helping to do that, Mr. Bock focused instead on the limitations.  And in the process, he revealed that Google has made attempts to harness more experiential data to come up with more effective hiring practices.  Here’s what he said:

“We’ve done some interesting things to figure out how many job candidates we should be interviewing for each position, who are better interviewers than others, and what kind of attributes tend to predict success at Google.

On the leadership side, we’re looking at what makes people successful leaders and how we can we cultivate that.”

And what about some of the more infamous Google hiring practices, such as looking at college transcripts from a million years ago or asking people to solve impossible “challenge questions” or equations?  Bock revealed these learnings:

“We found that brainteasers are a complete waste of time.  How many golf balls can you fit into an airplane?  How many gas stations in Manhattan?  A complete waste of time.  They don’t predict anything.  They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.”

And about GPA stats, Bock revealed that after all of the data crunching, Google’s HR department came to this conclusion:

“GPAs are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless – no correlation at all, except for brand-new college grades where there’s a slight correlation … we found that they don’t predict anything.

After two or three years, your ability to perform at Google is completely unrelated to how you performed when you were in school, because the skills you required in college are very different.  You’re also fundamentally a different person.  You learn and grow.  You think about things differently.”

So now Google has reverted to the tried-and-true formula of structured behavioral interviews, consistently applied across all applicants. 

This includes using standardized behavioral questions to listen to open-ended responses, which then makes it possible to see how candidates actually interacted in real-world situations, as well as what they consider to be “easy” or “difficult” situations in which they found themselves.

Regarding leadership qualifications, according to Bock, Google has found that these are ambiguous or amorphous characteristics:

“For leaders, it’s important that people know you are consistent and fair in how you think about making decisions, and that there’s an element of predictability.  If a leader is consistent, people on their teams experience tremendous freedom because then they know that within certain parameters, they can do whatever they want.”

Where “big data” comes in to play here is in twice-a-year employee surveys that Google conducts on all of its managers, evaluating a variety of factors. 

Those factors are the fundamental ones — things like sharing information, treating all team employees fairly, and providing clear goals and performance standards.

But Bock cautions that leadership success is highly dependent on the context; what works at one company isn’t necessarily right for another firm.  “I don’t think you’ll ever replace human judgment and human inspiration and creativity,” he notes.

I was pleased to read these comments, because I always felt that attempting to develop a radically new paradigm for job hiring, while being an interesting and novel endeavor, was also somewhat presumptuous on the part of Google. 

At the end of the day, human nature is what it is:  fickle, unpredictable, fallible.  No amount of “re-engineering” is going to change that.

2 thoughts on “Google finds that in hiring practices, what’s old is new again.

  1. Interesting article. If someone has a good command of the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, do most people really need to go to college?

    Since teachers have had to be ‘certified’ in order to teach, a casual observer might determine graduation rates in many major cities have gone down.

  2. We are often told that new ways of thinking about things are superior to traditional ways.

    Occasionally they are. And when a new paradigm successfully proves its merit, it makes headlines. But the fact is, most “new” ideas prove not to be so hot. Some are disastrous.

    It’s like the lottery: It seems like every week, somebody wins big money. And when it happens, we all read about it. What we don’t hear about is all the people who lost money. The allure of successful innovation is so powerful, many folks are tempted to embrace new ideas the way some people buy Powerball tickets—sure they’ve got a life-changing winner. Alas, it usually ain’t so.

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