A Case Study of Google Recruiting

As part of my continuing series of case studies and analyses of truly world-class recruiting functions, I will highlight some of the key features at Google, the world’s only corporate “recruiting machine.” In the past few months, I have spent a good deal of time researching Google and communicating with Google managers and employees in an attempt to identify their best practices. For those of you who are not in the technology field or who don’t consider Google to be a direct competitor for talent, you might be thinking, “Well, that’s nice, but what Google does doesn’t really impact me.” But if you did think that way, you’d be wrong.

“Disruptive Technology” and Strategic “Disruptive Recruiting”

Google, through its branding, PR, and recruiting efforts, has made itself so well known and attractive to professionals from every industry and university that they have essentially changed the game of recruiting forever. If you know anything about technology, you know that people in the field use the term “disruptive technology” for technologies like Apple’s iPod, which has almost overnight changed the entire technology and entertainment marketplace to the point where everyone must pay attention to what that firm is doing. Google has created the same phenomenom in the form of a “disruptive approach” to work and recruiting, an approach so different and so compelling that if you don’t pay attention and attempt to emulate some of the things they’re doing, you might soon lose some of the very best employees you have. I urge you to read on and to see some of the disruptive and breathtaking things Google is doing.

The World’s First Recruiting Culture

Google has accomplished something that no other corporation has ever accomplished. In less than a handful of years, they have developed what can only be categorized as a “recruiting machine.” They still have a ways to go, but what they have done so far can only be categorized as amazing. Now, Google still doesn’t have the best sales and marketing strategy (FirstMerit Bank does), nor are they the best when it comes to the use of metrics (Valero Energy is). But what they have done better than anyone else is to develop the world’s first “recruiting culture” (see my previous writings on this subject). What that means is that recruiting and the need for it permeates the entire organization. Not just the recruiting function or the HR organization, but the entire company — from the key leaders on down to the entry-level employees. As a result of this culture, not only does Google fund recruiting to the point where the function is in a league by itself, but they have also gone to the extraordinary step of changing the way employees work in order to attract and retain the very best. (Note: It might be credible to argue that Cisco in the late 90s had the world’s first “recruiting culture” but since the exit of Michael McNeal, Janel Canepa, Randall Birkwood et al, that function has long since been dismantled to below “K-Mart levels,” so it’s probably a moot issue.)

Google Has Changed Work Itself With “20% Time”

Many organizations have changed their pay or benefits in order to attract better workers, but no one has changed every professional job in the company just so that the work itself is the primary attraction and retention tool. Rather than letting work, jobs, and job descriptions be put together by the “out of touch” people in corporate compensation, Google’s founders (Larry and Sergey as everyone calls them), HR director Stacy Sullivan, and the leadership team at Google have literally crafted every professional job and workplace element so that all employees are:

  • Working on interesting work
  • Learning continuously
  • Constantly challenged to do more
  • Feeling that they are adding value

The key element of changing the work so that the work itself becomes a critical attraction and retention force and driver of innovation and motivation is what Google calls “20% work.” There is no concrete definition of what 20% work means, but generally for professional jobs it means that the employee works the equivalent of one-day-a-week on their own researching individually selected projects that the company funds and supports. Both Google Groups and Google News products are reported to have started as a result of personal 20% time projects. Other firms, like Genentech and 3M, have utilized similar programs, and although I’ve spent time at both firms, I find the Google approach to be clearly superior. Despite not being clearly publicized on their website, it is so easy to understand and so compelling that just the mention of 20% time excites applicants and current employees like no other program I’ve ever come across. In addition to being a phenomenal attraction tool, it also keeps their retention rate at, as one HR executive put it “almost nil.” But its greatest value is that it drives innovation and creativity throughout the organization.

At Google, innovation is expected of everyone in every function, not just product development. The 20% time, along with the expectation of continuous and disruptive innovation, has driven the company’s phenomenal success in product and service innovation. Yes, in this rare case, HR activities and policies are actually driving corporate business success.

One Thousand Millionaires

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I find that most people who have never visited Google think that the primary attraction tool and driver of retention at Google is the phenomenal income derived from employee stock options. Yes, it is a fact that Google created an estimated 1,000 millionaire employees when they went public (they could be billionaire employees by the time you read this case study, if the stock price keeps growing and its current rate!). But rather than driving success, I have found (as I also found at previous stock-growth powerhouses like Charles Schwab, Intel, Cisco, and Microsoft) that rather than contributing to success, the money also has negative impacts. The public awareness of such widely held wealth among employees actually brings in a volume of resumes from people who want to “work for the money” rather than the joy of being at the firm that celebrates innovation more than any other company on the planet. Other ways that the wealth is distracting include the difficulty of motivating and managing individuals with sudden wealth and the almost inevitable “us versus them” mentality that is caused by the significant wealth differential between people hired before and after the IPO. My conclusion is that stock options are not the primary attractor of top talent at Google. Instead, it’s the work.

The World’s Largest Recruiting Budget

Google recruiting is the best-funded recruiting function in any major product-driven corporation. This is not in a misstatement. Arnnon Geshuri, the head of recruiting, and Stacy Sullivan, the director of HR, have done what can only be classified as an unbelievable job in convincing senior management to fund the recruiting effort beyond that of any corporation in history. My own calculations indicate that, at times, Google recruitment has a ratio of 1 recruiter for every 14 employees (14:1). That ratio surpasses the previous record of 65:1, held by Cisco during the first war for talent in the late ’90s. If on the surface this ratio doesn’t impress you, I might suggest that you compare it to the typically much larger ratio of employees to all HR professionals, which is about 100:1. Because “building a business case” is an essential factor for building a recruiting culture (or even for having a strategic impact), their funding level puts Google in a class by itself!

The Benefits Are Breathtaking

Before I highlight the extraordinary benefits that Google offers, it is important to note that although these benefits are certainly so breathtaking that they do in fact get almost every potential applicant’s attention, they are not designed just for recruiting purposes. Instead, these benefits are also designed to encourage collaboration, to break down barriers between functions, and to stimulate individual creativity and innovation. These benefits do attract some of the “wrong people,” that is, talented individuals who are seeking benefits rather than an opportunity to do their best work, which creates a screening challenge. In addition, some also argue that such a wealth of benefits and opportunities to play distracts less-focused workers from their jobs. The take away for other firms is that, even if you do match Google’s “non-work” benefits (as firms like SAS have almost done), you are not automatically going to attract the very best and the most innovative. To do that you also need a strong “employment brand” and jobs that are designed to continually challenge and grow employees. A partial list of Google’s “I bet you don’t have that where you work” benefits include:

  • Flex hours for nearly every professional employee
  • Casual dress everyday (and this goes well beyond business casual)
  • Employees can bring their dogs to work, everyday
  • On-site physician
  • On-site dental care
  • Health benefits that begin as soon as an employee reports for work
  • Free massage and yoga
  • Shoreline running trails
  • Stock options everywhere
  • Free drinks and snacks everywhere (espresso, smoothies, red bull, health drinks, kombucha tea, you name it)
  • Free meals, including breakfast, lunch and dinner (some have described this as a feast with multiple locations and world-class chefs, including one that cooked for the Grateful Dead)
  • Three weeks’ vacation during the first year
  • Free recreation everywhere, including video games, foosball, volleyball and pool tables
  • Valet parking for employees
  • Onsite car wash and detailing
  • Maternity and parental leave (plus new moms and dads are able to expense up to $500 for take-out meals during the first four weeks that they are home with their new baby)
  • Employee referral bonus program
  • Near site child care center
  • Back-up child care for parents when their regularly scheduled child care falls through
  • Free shuttle service to several San Francisco and East and South Bay locations (San Francisco is 45 miles away from the main campus)
  • Fuel efficiency vehicle incentive program ($5,000 assistance if you buy a hybrid)
  • Onsite dry cleaning, plus a coin-free laundry room
  • A Friday TGIF all-employee gathering where the founders frequently speak
  • A 401k investment program
  • A “no tracking of sick days” policy
  • Employee interest groups (formed by Google employees, these are all over the map and are said to include Buffy fans, cricketers, Nobel prize winners, and a wine club)
  • An onsite gym to work off all of the snacks

Note: These benefits are not all available to employees who do not work on Google’s Silicon Valley main campus. So what else drives the excellence of Google’s recruiting efforts? Next week I’ll look at Google’s approach to referrals, international recruiting, and employment branding, as well as some weaknesses in the Google approach.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," Staffing.org called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website www.drjohnsullivan.com and on staging.ere.net. He lives in Pacifica, California.



13 Comments on “A Case Study of Google Recruiting

  1. From all of my contacts in recruiting at Google, I have been hearing good things. At one point I had 150 recruiters working for me in the Bay Area at least a dozen of them have landed at Google at one time of another. Just last week I had dinner with friend who is working there in recruiting and loves it. She had nothing but positive things to say.

    I also had the opportunity recently to visit the Google campus for a lunch meeting with a visiting member of their recruiting team who works on contract from another state. He and I along with another member of the Google recruiting team enjoyed a nice lunch outside under the large market umbrellas. The atmosphere there was electric, the people were all very happy, smiling and laughing together. The food service was outstanding with a large selection and provided entirely by the company.

    Google by all possible views looks to be doing extremely well in many different areas. Their ability to continue to grow and stay successful will be based on the people they recruit and retain. It looks like they are making a serious investment in recruiting top talent. I like their style and the direction they are headed as a company. Sure there will have some managers that are better than others, people that interview well and make it in only to find out later that they don’t like it there or don’t fit with the culture, that happens everywhere.

    I welcome Google to the Silicon Valley recruiting scene and look forward to watching them be creative, adapt, and develop as we have with firms such as Ebay, Netscape, Yahoo, etc…

    Craig Silverman
    http://www.hireability.com – The Recruiting Network

  2. LOL!!

    14:1 ratio … Am I the only one that thinks this is a bit crazy?? (I about choked when I heard Dr. John give this # out in Boston a few months ago) The only reason you’d have ~350 ‘recruiters’ for an employee base of ~5,000 employees is because about ~250 of those ‘recruiters’ must not be effective. Waste of $$$?? Probably /shrug Staffing up the recruiting dept to eventually staff up the company /shrug …could be. I think it’s just over inflated (like their stock, their hype, etc). this is a user/supporter view from the people I know at Google, have been at Google, and the few times they made me offers (which I declined) … I?m sorry to be the devils advocate here; but with that much recruiting manpower you’d think they’d be growing a bit faster then they are. Or is the goal of the recruiters not linked to them growing.

    I?m confused!!
    Am I the only one that feels this way??

  3. Jeremy – I was surprised by the article as well but I am going to be careful on my comments as a lot of people will just perceive them as elGoog vs. MS. The number I would be really curious about here is hires per recruiter as if they have that many recruiters and the number of hires they are looking to make (lets say 3,000 a year) then that would put hires per recruiter at less than 10 each per year.

  4. Google is very interesting to look at but I wonder how generally applicable the lessons are. Google is not really like any other company, and it’s not just because they recruit better people, but because their business operates according to entirely different rules.

    For instance, according to Y! finance, GOOG has in the past year generated something like $575,000 in gross profit per employee, not to mention 95% revenue growth. GE produced ~$300k in profit per employee, with growth in the >10% range. Did I mention Google has 3,000 employees, and GE 300,000?

    If we look at market cap the picture is even starker. GE is around $380 billion, while Google is valued at $112bn. In one sense, one person in Google is worth as much as 300 people at GE. Sure, GE has a lot of factory workers, truck drivers, etc., but they also recruit the cream of every year’s crop of science PhD’s and whatnot. But in the end the Google business model simply looks like it can make far more money with far fewer people.

    In recruiting terms today Google is kind of like the Apollo program once was in its own way: the center of the world. Even today, NASA could call any pilot in the world and say, ‘Wanna be an astronaut?’ and he or she would be on the next plane to Cape Canaveral. Most companies will not create this kind of environment because it’s too risky. Heck, these days even NASA isn’t willing to take chances the way they did in the ’60s.

  5. Colin has a point.

    The other question is.. is google a fad? What happens to google when the next ‘google’ comes along. Remember just a few years ago that we were raving about Northern lights and Lycos were the big names on the block when doing xrays, flips, searches etc. I understand that theres a difference in the tech and that google have marketed themselves up the wazoo….


  6. As to Google being a ‘fad’…I see them more as a Netscape than the ones you mentioned. No offense to Lycos etc. but they ain?t no Google or Netscape. Google?s impact is significant across the board of many peoples work and private life. Maybe from a recruiting resource perspective they are peaking is that is what you mean?

    Of course, as a business they have proven themselves much stronger than Netscape as they have made themselves very difficult for Microsoft to crush.

  7. As I have been preaching for a long time:

    Q: What do you get when you put 2000 PhD’s in a room together?

    A: Nothing!!

    At Google, there is the haves (stock option millionaires) and the have nots (newbies), cliques, and I can guarantee rivalry.

    Another one:

    Q: What do you get when you have a lot of disenchanted, very wealthy, smart employees?

    A: Entrepreneurs who when they are sick of it all, decide to break out on their own and come up with the Google Killer.

    I must agree with Eamonn, how long will Google be on top? 2 years? 5 years?

    Their search results are suffering which is the basis for their business and it will remain to be seen how they can integrate all of their new features. My bet is that the first two years they will just try on their own with a few small acquisitions (may be wrong if they make a big splash with AOL but doesn’t seem likely). Within 3 years, they will make a big splash with some sort of acquisition to try to maintain their growth. That is when the real culture clashes will begin.

    The stock is good now, it may even go up some more, but I think that many of you recruiters will be able to recruit away some top flight talent with Google on their resume in the next few years for your clients. Next you will just have to work around programmers egos, which we all know about.

    Hope all is well


  8. I recently did a stint with Google and, for the most part, enjoyed my time there. However, they would be the first to admit that the existing hiring/interview process is entirely to lengthy and the ‘candidate experience’ is relatively poor for a large % of applicants (and they have the data to back this up).

    On the positive side, most of the people I worked with at Google were deeply passionate about staffing and about maintaining hiring standards within their respective groups. However, you can’t continue to throw money/warm bodies at a problem like volume recruiting without eventually collapsing under your own weight. Unless they figure out a better, more efficient way of doing business, I’m afraid that is what will happen to their staffing function.

  9. This ratio does not look quite as shocking when you take into account that the majority of Google’s recruiters are not FTE’s themselves, but are instead temps or contractors. While it doesn’t do much for promoting a world class recruiting team that is deeply committed to the company’s success, it does provide a great degree of ‘scalability’ in the recruiting function.

  10. This article is pretty decent but would like to make 4 simple comments, not everything is always as great as it is made out to be, it is called life in business and business unfortunately must have a human element. –

    1 Google does hire many Contract workers – For example 300 of the ‘recruiters’ are actually temp/contract. There is no wonder that they are making profit. No health, vacation, sick day worries..

    2 To get the real truth of Google and it’s environment check out the Blog of the former employees, very insightful http://xooglers.blogspot.com/ The Blog calls Google intranet Moma, ex googlers know what it means

    3 To accomplish its current pace of hiring about 10 new employees a day Google offers extremely
    inflated compensation packages, ‘irrational’ offers are bad for the tech industry because they distort compensation expectations and sow resentment among lower-paid employees. This was quoted

    When I see that Google has such a high ratio I wonder, who is babysitting whom.. Actually, I wonder what are they up to.. They are hiring that many people for what reason? 10 People a day.. Are they trying to make losses financially, as they are an all profit company? It is a concern, because sometimes companies Can grow too big too fast (Crispy Cream for eg)

    I also think of Yahoo how great and huge Yahoo was back in 2000 before the stock market crash. Anyways read the blog, there is interesting stuff there.

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