Google Continues to Innovate in Recruiting and Candidate Assessment

There’s no doubt about it: Google is one of the most innovative recruiting organizations on the planet. I’ve written in the past about some of their world-class practices, but in light of recent innovations and global news interest, an update is in order.

In less than nine years, Google has grown from a tiny dorm-room entity that couldn’t attract anyone interested in buying the technology to a global organization whose growth is supported by a massive recruiting organization. While critics question the efficiency of Google recruiting practices, few question the effectiveness.

More than any other organization, Google is credited with changing the game when it comes to recruiting leading-edge talent. Their approaches have forced reactions among nearly every other leading high-technology firm trying to attract the cream of the crop, and encouraged a healthy debate among functional leaders of efficiency versus effectiveness in recruiting.

Google attracts over one million applicants a year, or nearly 130 applicants per employee, an unheard of volume for organizations of their size and age. Their recruiting machine is geared to produce approximately 800 hires per month, a volume that could double the company’s size in a single year. Using a human-powered model, Google has already screened millions of candidates, assessed thousands, and hired more than 10,000 professionals.

Some of the approaches that enable the Google recruiting machine to produce include:

  • Employment branding. Perhaps their most significant accomplishment is how they have built an incredible employment brand. The Google culture is one of legend. Categorized in hundreds of blogs as both everything and nothing, they have successfully created an organization capable of delivering a 1:1 employee/employer experience. From homemakers to finance professionals to cutting edge engineers, Google is one of the top employers with regards to desirability. They were recently recognized by Business Week as the top employer of choice for college students and have appeared near the top in a multitude of rankings for MBAs, women, engineers, and diverse individuals. While the company disdains advertising about itself, it considers the number of blog postings discussing Google’s culture a key measure of brand strength.
  • Retention. Because Google can create such a unique experience for every employee and can provide an opportunity for professionals to focus on what they do best, turnover is less than 5%. While in the early days stock options might have been the dominant retention driver, employees hired recently receive only market-based pay and marginal stock participation via “Google Stock Units.” They embody the rationale that money isn’t the issue. Their employee loyalty is simply phenomenal.
  • Creativity. The Google recruiting team continues to come up with creative approaches. One of my favorites occurred in the spring of 2006 when they retooled their search portal to deliver a targeted recruiting message to students and faculty of targeted schools. When individuals would access the Google search portal, Google servers would identify the IP address of the visitor, look up what organization the IP address belonged to, and alter the portal appearance if the visitor was accessing the portal from one of the university campuses Google actively recruits from. The approach, while not new, was implemented in Google’s typical minimalist style. They added a single text line just below the search box that asked whether the visitor was graduating and whether they were interested in a job at Google. The micro-targeting approach was simple and unobtrusive. Another example, while again not being unique, further signifies the extent to which Google is responsive to the labor force. That approach is taking the work to where the workforce already exists, namely the University of Michigan campus. The initiative took private/public cooperation to an entirely new level, ensuring that students would have access to education inherently suited to real employer demands, and that Google would have unfettered access to some of the brightest minds.
  • Employee referral program. 2006 marked a banner year for investment in Google’s employee referral program. Leveraging research on best practices, they retooled their program from top to bottom. The program is now designed to deliver a world-class candidate experience, be proactive, and to respond to every referral within one week of submission. While many organizations design processes to meet the organization’s needs, Google recognized that a successful referral program must be designed to meet the needs of employees and referrals first.
  • Data-driven approach to candidate assessment. The latest innovation from Google’s recruiting function is so unique that the New York Times wrote a feature story about it. The article, written by Saul Hansell and published January 3, detailed how the search engine company is implementing a new assessment tool that relies on an algorithm to more accurately identify candidates that resemble existing top performers. While many companies seek to screen out candidates, the new Google candidate assessment approach enables Google to “include” candidates that might otherwise be overlooked. The algorithm evaluates a much wider range of potential success predictors than can normally be discerned from most resumes. This innovation recognizes and resolves a major flaw inherent to typical assessment methodologies that rely too heavily on academic grades, SAT scores, degrees from “top” schools, prior industry experience, and subjective interview results.

There are several reasons why Google’s new approach is worthy of further study:

  1. Google had an incredible track record and no compelling reason to make a major shift in its recruiting approach. It takes extraordinary leadership to make a significant shift in your approach to recruiting without the pressure of business losses, lawsuits, or union pressure. Google decided to get significantly better long before any business pressure made them change.
  2. The recruiting team at Google is making the transition from the common “intuition” approach to a scientific, data-based approach to selection. Much like what Dan Hilbert has done at Valero Energy, this change results in decisions made on facts and data.
  3. By broadening the range of factors considered when screening candidates, the resulting slate of hires will become more diverse and the number of innovative people (who don’t have near-perfect academic credentials and industry pedigree) who get selected will improve.
  4. This approach will undoubtedly reduce the reliance on interviews, which have ridiculously low rates of success in predicting on-the-job performance. (Laszlo Bock, Google’s Vice President of People Operations, routinely admits, “Interviews are a terrible predictor of performance.”)
  5. Google is in the search engine business, and as a result, they routinely use “algorithms” to identify the best search results on the business side of the enterprise. By adopting commonly used internal business tools into the recruiting process, the recruiting function sent a message to managers that recruiting understands the business model, as well as that it is smart enough to take advantage of the world-class knowledge and talent on the “business side” by applying it directly to the recruiting process.

Overview of the Algorithm Candidate Screening Model

The new approach to candidate screening was developed by a team that included Laszlo Bock (formerly from GE) and Todd Carlisle (who is speaking at ERE’s Spring Expo in San Diego). The goal was to identify all of the factors that predict future on-the-job performance and success.

The basic approach is quite simple. First, you survey current employees on a variety of characteristics and traits, including teamwork, biographical information, past experiences and accomplishments (i.e., have they started a company, written a book, won a championship, set a record).

Next, you statistically determine which of these many traits your top performers and most impactful employees’ exhibit that differentiates them from bottom performing and average employees.

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Finally, you develop an online survey to gather the predictive information from applicants. Then each candidate’s biodata survey and resumes are screened electronically and given a score between zero and 100 based on how many of the top performance indicators each candidate possesses. (It’s important to note that using biodata to screen candidates is not a new process, but is quite rare in companies that hire large numbers of professionals.)

Soon, all applicants at Google will be asked to fill out this extensive bio-data questionnaire. While some may find it a little inconvenient, the net result will be a more scientific approach to selection, which will over time translate into more productive hires and fewer “misses” of top performers who can do the job in spite of their lack of stellar academic qualifications.

Final Thoughts

The Google culture is unique in that it questions almost every assumption or process that governs traditional organizations. Managers are free to try new approaches, to make huge mistakes, and to celebrate learning from failure. The result of this organizational methodology is a recruiting function that does not confine to traditional approaches.

The focus isn’t on reducing cost per hire by $0.10, but rather on dramatically increasing the success rate of the function to hire individuals capable of becoming top performers. All too often, organizations become overly obsessed with efficiency and lose sight of why the function exists in the first place, a reality that leads to numerous expectations being ignored. Many organizations are realizing this. In late 2006, we began seeing a number of organizations radically rethink what they do.

Google has launched some exciting new practices, and other organizations are poised to follow. All assumptions in recruiting must be challenged, and reliance on processes architected nearly a century ago must end. In the near future, all recruiting decisions will be based on data.

Our industry owes thanks to Laszlo and Todd for raising the bar and becoming a role model by helping make Google recruiting more scientific and metrics driven.

(Note: Dr. Sullivan does not now, nor has he ever had, a financial relationship with Google.)

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," 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 and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



14 Comments on “Google Continues to Innovate in Recruiting and Candidate Assessment

  1. Ask all those google searchers :- Does the Algorithm of google Search Engine work well ?

    ‘Last 5-6 years people are enjoying it and hence let us assume it works’ could be a possible answer.

    But those who have been using it for long know that it is not accurate enough even if you use the best of boolean or advanced search options.

    Perhaps the Searchers dont know how to exploit the great algortihm !!!!

    In recruiting profession we have seen time and again that the complementary forces ‘can do ‘ and ‘will do’ have to be addressed in any form of screening.

    Baed on the article in new york times, when google screening algorithm screens on variety of Success predictors it is heavily banking on ‘Can do’ factors and not on ‘will do’ factors of candidates.

    Let me draw analogy here: It might throw in all best tigers in one cage and say they will work together. You know what would happen.

    Iam sure google coding wizkids would have designed an algorithm for employee compatability and team work too…

    How about a program for screening prospective spouse ? we can reduce the divorces.

    Let us leave them for furture articles.

    As a talent search professional, I appreciate the recruitment function’s thirst to predict future success. Thanks to googlers for ‘showing water’ that apparently can slake our thirst. the screening tool is yet to be validated before it is potable. Presently, it is still a mirage for most of us.

    Kudos to Google for attacking the humane problem logical way…I am sure the fruits of their efforts would lead to a few good tips/tools to organise our searches.

    Yet there is huge potential in screening candidates for both ‘Can do’ & ‘will do’ factors. And the beauty of the game is, it is entirely contextual and never be the same even for the same job position.

    Perhaps this challenge keeps us going on…and our profession too.

  2. This is an interesting business – this Google algorithm stuff. Regarding the NY Times article you mention, written by Saul Hansell and published on January 3, 2007, and to which I pointed for the sake of discussion in one of the discussion groups here on ERE on January 5, one of my readers sent me the following comments:

    Hello Maureen:

    ?Have you ever made a profit from a catering business or dog walking?
    Do you prefer to work alone or in groups?
    Have you ever set a world record in anything??

    These are questions unrelated to the job, did I hear law suit?

    ?Google has always wanted to hire people with straight-A report cards and double 800s on their SATs. Now, like an Ivy League school, it is starting to look for more well-rounded candidates, like those who have published books or started their own clubs.?

    Does publishing books or starting a club predict job success? What percentage of Goog’e’s top performers published books or started their own clubs?

    ?Desperate to hire more engineers and sales representatives to staff its rapidly growing search and advertising business, Google; in typical eccentric fashion has created an automated way to search for talent among the more than 100,000 job applications it receives each month. It is starting to ask job applicants to fill out an elaborate online survey that explores their attitudes, behavior, personality and biographical details going back to high school.?

    But is that talent?

    ?The questions range from the age when applicants first got excited about computers to whether they have ever tutored or ever established a nonprofit organization.?

    That is not talent.

    ?The answers are fed into a series of formulas created by Google’s mathematicians that calculate a score;
    from zero to 100 meant to predict how well a person will fit into its chaotic and competitive culture.?

    Oh my, one score for all the jobs? It seems they are reinventing the wheel but a wheel that cannot carry anything–they need an axle and wagon. Too bad they just don’t buy a truck. Perhaps they are cheap? Most all employers think they are different so they waste time and money trying different things.

    ‘?As we get bigger, we find it harder and harder to find enough people,? said Laszlo Bock, Google’s vice president for people operations. ?With traditional hiring methods, we were worried we will
    overlook some of the best candidates.?’

    It seems they want to hire the best candidate but not necessarily the best employees which is a common mistake.

    ?Google is certainly not alone in the search for quantitative ways to find good employees. Employers use a wide range of tests meant to assess skills, intelligence, personality and honesty. And the use of biographical surveys similar to Google’s new system is on the rise.?

    Yes, and Google believed that higher intelligence makes for better employee whether or not it was true.

    Again, these comments were sent to me offline but I offer them here for discussion. There are a few other comments in the string ? they can be found in the Interviewing and Screening group here on ERE.
    It seems some people find Google?s hiring techniques ?controversial?. Your thoughts?

  3. John, I appreciate you taking the time and effort to write this article and I do appreciate the article however Google has tons of money, brand recognition and everyone in the world wants to work for them. What about the companies that aren’t on the best to work for, don’t have the brand and or recognition and especially the money and power to reach anyone at anytime (including using their own platform. What are those companies doing to reach candidates, what’s their tactics and strategies to reach people. That’s what excites me.

  4. Jason,
    excellent post. Another question, what if Gosh Forbid, the wonderful web 2.0 bubble were to burst, or Googles customers decided not to pay for Ad’s anymore, and pulled (they are a predominately ad based business) — will they still be America’s darling?? Will it be as easy to find candidates to work there? Will they then have to consider changing their interview processes?

    Can this happen? Hmm, remember a few years back sitting with our investor as he tried to convince my husband that internet was the best place to roll our money.. Based upon many of the resumes that was crossing my desk, I felt that at the time, it was indeed the worst place.

    Of course it was difficult to explain to my husband why I felt that Microsoft and Yahoo could actually Crash. No Way, not the richest companies in the world they felt.

    Thank goodness I got my way on this one, because less than 3 mths later, the Worst Stock Market Crash hit the dot com markets.. I don’t think we would have been able to recoupe..

    Anyways, wonder how many of us are ever prepared for could happen in the Real World..

  5. I’m reminded of the old Steve Martin joke where he tells you how to become a millionaire and never work again. Step One: First, you get a million dollars…

  6. Steven and Phillip
    though you both make an interesting observation, should we not also consider the concerns with many of these articles which may be not be conducive in the reality of the recruiting world.

    As was mentioned earlier, when one considers Googles Size, name recognition, and of course their popularity and that many people want to
    work for them.. so of course for them finding candidates is easy, and of course they have the ability to being able to implement more
    creative tools that allow them to be more selective, more so than the average company.

    For sure, the average company, the smaller company has a much more challenging time to find those candidates, compared to that of the
    Yahoo’s, Microsoft, Google, AT&T, Apple and so on.

    To compare recruiting and retention techniques of these companies to that of Say Sanford and Sons Computers Inc (made up name) is indeed
    foolhardy. Gee, how much easier is it for a recruiter at Google to call Joe Blue, and say, hey I found your information on the internet,
    are you interested in working for us?

    Will the recruiter at average company have the same responses? On a regular basis? My bet is that Google has a hard time just Wading
    through the hundreds, maybe even thousands of resumes they get each day!

    So, with that in mind, when we are looking at recruiting metrics, and search tools, are we keeping these factors in mind? When we look at
    how fast name generation makes a placement is that also something else we are considering? These factors do play a really Huge factor
    in what really is happening in our industry.

    Surprisingly I have found the bigger and well known the company, the slower the process. The more ‘picky’ they are. Also they tend to
    have more people to push the process too.. It isn’t just up to the decision maker – nah, it also must include the sourcer, qualifier,
    recruiter, H.R, Managers upon managers, and more interviews that make
    your head spin..

    For sure the lesser name client doesn’t have that luxury to slow down the process, especially if they are competing with the big boys..

    It really isn’t apples to apples in recruiting, actually it is more like sponge to concrete sometimes when considers these Real World variables..

  7. It seems there is a lot of negativity on the responses so far about Google and their new way of hiring, so I thought I would add a positive note as it rings similar to something our organization implemented over a year ago.

    Our company at the end of 2005 decided to add it’s own ‘algorithm’ in helping determine a good fit based on the past successes, backgrounds, etc of candidates applying for our roles within our organization. Just like Google, we looked at their backgrounds and whether they started their own business or whether they worked with someone that did, etc. (There are a LOT more attributes that we looked at, so the few listed there are just to illustrate a point).

    2006 numbers are in, and based on our use of this new system (and even turning down what might have been better candidates based on the interviews) our retention increased about 250%; the employee referral program increased by almost 300%; and overall job satisfaction increased among employees. There were a lot of other benefits that we enjoyed this year from implementing this system, and we are still refining it to this day as it is a continual process of developing data to support our hiring practices and ensuring that those that we hire in the future WILL be successful.

    (Another great result was litereally doubling my income this year, which is always a fantastic bonus since I was so involed in the transition 🙂

    Every company is different (culture, environment, practices, etc) and if there was a way to hire on the right people (even if they academically don’t seem to fit, or have not had the best track record of success in the past) it does not mean that they cannot fit in another organization and be a superstar. It is amazing to me to see someone who was doing horrible in the organization they were in and based on our search criteria, we determined they would do well in our organization, and sure enough, they are leaders within our organization now.

    It will be interesting to see in the future what Google accomplishes with their ‘test’ as well as the ‘test’ we are running with our organization.

  8. I tend to agree with Steven’s point about the negativity surrounding Google.

    Yes, Google has an unreal market cap…brand recognition…droves of genius coders working for them…etc. etc. But let’s not ignore the fact that Google wasn’t always where it is today. They got where they are for a reason.

    I think the purpose of looking at companies like this from your own lens is to benchmark for your own organization. There are obvious differences between Google and your own organization…but does that mean that you can’t take steps towards re-imagining how to do recruiting? And in doing so, take a few pages from organizations like Google?

    Rather than denigrate an organization because their circumstances are ‘better’ or ‘different’ than your own…I wonder if our energy isn’t better spent using these types of organizations as inspiration to spur ideation within our own teams and organizations?

    Having said that, of course, I do agree with people when they ask, ‘yeah, that’s great…but how does this relate to me???’ I’d like to think of articles like this as just the tip of the iceberg…that lead to discussions around how you can effectively transfer the knowledge from other places into your own settings. In other words, the key is not the article in so much as it is the discussions and ‘brainstormers’ that happen afterwards. At least, that’s the hope…right?

  9. ‘Google attracts over one million applicants a year,’

    My Rants:
    1. If any company had a working budget like they did, who couldn?t build a world class recruiting machine to ATTRACT talent. Microsoft did.
    2. It really floors me as to why they would even need to work with outside recruiting agencies.
    a. Administrative Support ? Fine
    b. Scheduling – Fine
    But why agencies when they can attract all the talent they need. If they truly hire the brightest, what happened to their recruiting team? Shouldn?t all their recruiters be like ?Shally-Machines? built to recruit, source, mine, cold call without external agencies? It doesn?t make sense to me why they need external resources. With that type of resume flow you would think those candidates are already in the google ATS.

    It makes me wonder if the brightest truly is the best.


  10. Thank you, Steven Smith, for your perspective on Google’s biodata assessment tool. You are so right when you say ‘Every company is different (culture, environment, practices, etc) and if there was a way to hire on the right people (even if they academically don’t seem to fit, or have not had the best track record of success in the past) it does not mean that they cannot fit in another organization and be a superstar. It is amazing to me to see someone who was doing horrible in the organization they were in and based on our search criteria, we determined they would do well in our organization, and sure enough, they are leaders within our organization now.’

    I have seen this happen time and time again, from both perspectives. We have had some great successes in hiring someone who wasn’t a good fit in a previous job, but seemed to be just right for our job. We’ve also had some miserable failures when we’ve hired someone who was a star in their previous company but had trouble fitting into our culture (higher education is very different from corporate America), even though the job was similar.

    Which leads us to the moral of the story, which is, if you’re going to use a biodata assessment, make sure it’s based on your own culture and your own star performers.

  11. I am proof that interviewing is inexact–I’m on my third wife (I got it down right this time) and my interview to hire ratio is greater than 1:1.

    With that said, as I read this article I am reminded of a qualifier from the financial services industry.

    ‘Past performance does not guarantee future returns.’

    Like royalty that became ill from hemophilia from inbreeding, using a methodology like this will fail UNLESS

    Unless you understand what it is about these experiences results in the desired outcome so that you can replicate them.

    Jeff Altman
    The Big Game Hunter

  12. John, in his book Rethinking Strategic HR said be prepared to be uncomfortable?that adding a strategic impact would be difficult; and as he concluded in the last sentence of the book, ‘…it takes but one talent to be strategic in HR, and that is courage.’

    From my perspective John?s article isn?t about Google; rather it?s about how to develop a performance culture that impacts business objectives, which could lead to creating a sustainable competitive advantage in the market place. Having the right people in the right jobs can be that advantage. To get there requires thinking and acting in strategic ways. Such thinking and acting also requires being future focused, developing ?an action tool kit?, benchmarking, linking appropriate metrics, the use of technology; and having people with the skill, commitment and courage to make it happen.

    Any organization doing these things [to the best of its ability and within its resource limitations] will likely experience increased retention, overall employee and workforce productivity gains; as well as, a better position in the market place, which will hopefully lead to better financial results regardless of the economic environment [all things being equal].

    Be courageous?

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