The People Scientist

Brian Welle

Greatest Challenge: Using data and research to determine whether bias exists in Google's engineering-promotion process, helping Google create better managers, and making onboarding and acculturation for new employees go faster.

Greatest Achievement: As head of PiLab, Brian uses employee feedback and social science to help improve Google's culture and people processes. He created "nudges" to encourage executives, managers and new hires to be proactive in diversity, welcoming new employees and becoming better managers.

This article accompanies Reinventing Core HR.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013
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Brian Welle has always wanted to work in HR -- but not to oversee annual reviews or open enrollment. He's more interested in what makes people tick. "I love the human-behavior part of HR," he says.

While pursuing a doctorate in industrial/organizational psychology at New York University, he served as research director at Catalyst, a nonprofit firm that promotes equality in the workplace. He credits Catalyst -- which, as a nonprofit, had far fewer resources than a typical for-profit consulting firm -- with exposing him to much higher-level work than he would have gotten in a conventional consulting role.

"Basically, Catalyst throws you to the wolves, so you end up getting to do things there that you would never get to do early on at a consulting firm," he says.

While there, he worked on a project that surveyed women and other minorities about their experiences working on Wall Street. Hearing about their struggles reinforced his interest in workplace diversity and equality. Shortly thereafter, Welle moved on to Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where he did post-doctoral work examining the behaviors and personal characteristics of successful leaders during public health and safety crises, such as 9/11.

Welle considered a career in academia or at a think tank, but was worried that his research would end up languishing in obscure journals that no one actually reads. Then Google came calling, and he joined the company in 2006 as a member of its people-analytics team.

Today, Welle does head up a think tank of sorts: Google's People and Innovation Lab (or PiLab), which he co-created. PiLab's mission is to use a combination of employee feedback and social research to come up with ways to improve the working experience at Google -- from job satisfaction to the corporate culture.

Welle considers himself lucky to be in a unique situation in which he can conduct the sort of deep research he'd be doing at a university and then apply his findings to an actual enterprise -- in this case, one of the most innovative and intriguing (not to mention deep-pocketed) companies in the world.

At Google, Welle and his PiLab team have tackled such things as finding out why there weren't more women leaders among the company's senior engineers. They set out to determine whether or not a bias existed within Google's engineering promotion process.

Here's what they found: Men and women did, in fact, have an equal chance of being promoted. But first, they had to self-nominate -- and this, Welles' team discovered, was where the problem lay. Men, it turns out, were more likely than women to nominate themselves for promotion. Welle came up with a solution that was almost beautiful in its simplicity: Have senior leaders encourage women to self-nominate for promotion. Sure enough, the gap was closed. "Often, managers won't take note unless you nominate yourself," he says. "So we asked [them] to send out regular reminders that say 'If you feel you're ready, put yourself forward,' and that alone erased the gap."

Welle's work has also included helping to improve the quality of Google's managers. The company's Project Oxygen initiative had revealed the eight common behaviors of effective people managers at Google. Now it was the job of Welle and his team to not only apply those findings to how Google trains and develops its managers, but to ensure they were showing results.

In the summer of 2011, Welle's team got approval for nine standardized manager items that would be used globally. It produced regular "pulse" surveys of Googlers to rate their managers on the eight items and, for managers whose results indicated they need work, provided access to a learning curriculum to help them improve.

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Since the surveys began, Google has seen consistent improvement in manager-survey scores across the entire company.

Managerial capabilities were also very much on Welle's mind as he contemplated another challenge: getting the thousands of new Googlers (or "Nooglers," as they're called) hired each year properly acculturated and productive as soon as possible.  One hurdle was managers: Between juggling all their other duties, they sometimes overlooked basic tasks such as ensuring Nooglers were assigned desks and computers, says Welle. "Obviously, not having these things can be very disconcerting on your first day of work," he adds.

Working with PiLab, Welle identified a series of simple "nudges" (small touch points that can serve as prompts) to shape the behavior of Nooglers and their managers in order to improve the onboarding process. The team experimented by sending out an email to managers one week before their Nooglers started. It addressed five things academic research had identified as drivers of successful onboarding, from providing adequate resources to ensuring new employees are matched up with a supportive colleague.

The team compared the results of managers who'd been sent the nudges with those who hadn't. Survey results showed that Nooglers whose managers had received the nudges showed significantly more onboarding progress -- as rated by themselves and their managers -- than those who hadn't.

Today, a nudge is sent out each week to managers who are being assigned new employees. Nooglers are also nudged into such things as setting up meetings with their managers. "This has significantly impacted the experiences of Nooglers, especially the ones who tend to be shy -- which is quite common among an engineering staff," says Welle.

Welle's efforts have earned him nothing but praise from his boss, Laszlo Bock, head of Google's people operations. "Brian has really built up a reputation of trust from Googlers that the people decisions made on their behalf are based on data and meant for their own good," says Bock. "For those on his team, he's always open to hearing new suggestions and really tries to create a space where his team members feel free to run experiments and test their ideas."


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