Google's HR Playbook

People operations chief Laszlo Bock elaborates on some of the key takeaways that can be found in his new book, Work Rules.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015
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When Laszlo Bock left General Electric back in 2006 to join Google as head of people operations, some people thought he was crazy. Perhaps even committing "professional suicide." After all, General Electric was home to one of the corporate world's highest-regarded HR operations. And Google? Let's just say, for argument's sake, its reputation at the time was nowhere close to that of Bock's former employer.

Well, as far as Google is concerned, a lot has changed since then. The Mountain View, Calif.-headquartered company has grown from 6,000 employees to now more than 50,000 employees. In recent years, Fortune magazine has ranked Google No. 1 on its list of the "100 Best Companies to Work For" five times. And according to LinkedIn, the company is now the most sought-after place to work in the world, drawing more than 2 million job applications each year.

As Bock explains in his soon-to-be-released book, Work Rules: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead: "Far from being professional suicide, my time at Google has been a white-water ride of experimentation and creation. Sometimes exhausting, sometimes frustrating, but always surging forward to create an environment of purpose, freedom and creativity."

During his tenure at Google, Bock, who was named HR Executive of the Year by this magazine back in 2010, has pioneered a wide range of innovations in areas such as hiring, analytics, compensation, benefits and retention. Many of Google's workforce achievements have been chronicled in this magazine and elsewhere. But now, with the publication of Work Rules, Bock lays out in one volume the thinking behind many of these efforts and the part they are playing in Google's remarkable growth.

Editor David Shadovitz recently questioned Bock about his reasons for writing Work Rules, and asked him to elaborate on some of the more notable ideas and approaches cited throughout the book. Excerpts from that Q&A follow.

What led you to join the ranks of published authors? ago, I became really interested in how different companies treat their employees. And when I joined Google, I came to realize how a person, or a company's philosophy of "work," can shape the way people live. At Google, our mission is to make information universally accessible and useful-but that doesn't stop at maps and cat videos. That open platform should include what we know about work, too, and this book is a summary of much of that knowledge.

On a personal level, I really hope that anyone reading this book will start to think of [himself or herself] as a founder who can create positive change. It doesn't have to be as the head of a company or even of an HR department. You can be a founder of a team, a family, a culture-anything.


Yes, I noticed one of the chapters in the book is even titled "Becoming a Founder"-and talks about the need for employees to think of themselves as founders. How have you been able to make this happen at Google?


In the early days, [Google founders] Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] deliberately left space for others to act as founders. That's given us an ethos where Googlers have the freedom to build on their vision for Google and lead. Sometimes, that means pursuing new products dreamt up in 20-percent time and, other times, it's an employee who speaks up at a company-wide meeting and challenges us on tough issues.

From where I sit, this all stems from a fundamental belief that people are good. And this is 100 percent replicable. Be transparent with your employees. Trust them to do the right thing. Give them freedom where other companies won't. You want your people to think like owners, not employees. And this is how you get there.


You talk in the book about the need to take decision-making away from managers and give it to individuals and teams. What advice would you give to organizations that are interested in bringing this about?


One concrete example of where taking control away from managers is critical is in the hiring process. First off, none of us are as good at interviewing as we think we are. On our own, most of us make hiring decisions that are less reliable than the "wisdom of the crowd." We're also susceptible to confirmation bias-we'll look for signs that confirm our unconscious beliefs about the candidate. For example, if a candidate went to the same school we graduated from, they must be as brilliant as we are. At Google, hiring decisions are made by a committee that reviews the hiring manager's input and then makes an independent, unbiased decision.

The three key things you can do to make better hiring decisions are: First, include subordinates and non-team members in the interview panel. Second, give their assessment the same weight as the hiring manager's. Third, have an unbiased group review the assessments and make the hiring decision. There's more to it, but this is a good start.


So how hard is it to get managers to give up their power when it specifically comes to hiring talent?


It's hard! Managers hate the idea that they can't hire their own people. They eventually come around once they see the quality of hires they get. Don't give in to the pressure-you're fighting for quality and that will never be the wrong approach.


What would you say are the two or three things that set Google's approach to hiring apart from the rest of the corporate world?


We don't compromise on quality. We work hard to stay objective about candidates and take steps to make sure our decisions are as free of bias as possible. And I have a personal rule: I only hire people who are better than me in some significant way.


Throughout the book, you mention dozens of other business leaders. Is there a single individual who especially inspired you-and, if so, what was it about him or her that inspired you?


There's no single person. Instead, I try to find something to learn from every person around me. Debating with Larry Page is always mind-expanding, but so is asking a new recruit about what surprises [him or her] most or what seems most broken.


In your chapter titled "Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast," you write about some of the ways culture shapes strategy. Can you share an example or two of how this has played out at Google?


Having a mission that matters is a cornerstone of our culture. Google's mission is deliberately ambitious, yet simple, which allows our employees to interpret it in a number of ways and pushes every one of us to constantly innovate. Here's an example: Google Street View was born from a desire to capture imagery the way people see it from the ground-and then make it universally accessible. Applying our mission this way had surprising practical benefits, like providing data for research studies that help cities become safer. And more than 1 million sites and app developers have used Google map products to build businesses.


In Work Rules, you detail plenty of HR innovations you and your team have been responsible for. What's the single best idea you've borrowed from someone else?


Paying higher salaries. We used to keep salaries way below industry average. Turns out people really, really like high salaries.

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In your book, there's a chapter titled "Pay Unfairly," which explores some of Google's unique pay practices. Can you elaborate a little on what you mean by "pay unfairly?"


It sounds crazy, but most compensation systems today are designed to encourage your best performers-and those with the most potential-to quit. Companies typically set overly conservative upper bounds on what star performers can earn. Soon they hit the cap, are getting the same increases as an average performer, and they're heading for the door. Paying fairly doesn't mean everyone at the same job level is paid within 20 percent of one another. Fairness is when pay is commensurate with contribution. Your best people are worth far more than your average people. If they don't feel it, you're implicitly telling them to quit.


On the benefits side, Google's known for offering its workers an extraordinary menu of options. Many are detailed in the book. Are there one or two that you're particularly proud of?


Sure, there are two that come to mind. The first is the survivor-income benefit-providing for family members left behind by a Googler in the event that [he or she] pass[es] away. Your stock vests immediately and your partner or spouse gets 50 percent of your salary for 10 years, with additional payments if you leave behind children. Giving Googlers peace of mind and providing support at a time when it's needed most makes me proud.


The second is "Take Your Parents to Work Day," a way for us to say thank you and broaden the Google family. This is a day where we get to spoil our Googlers and show off the amazing things they do to their family. We were the first company to do it, and it's a lot of fun!


You devote the book's Afterword specifically to other HR leaders. Why a chapter aimed just at them?


HR professionals are in this amazing position where we can influence how all of this works across entire organizations. I get a lot of questions about how we run people operations at Google, and thought some of the nitty-gritty would be more interesting to "our people" than to general readers. So I carved out a place where I could go deep on how people operations works.


You write about the need to take risks and encourage risk-taking at Google-and even about the need to "reward thoughtful failure." What's the greatest risk you personally took during your time at Google?


My CEO at GE told me I was nuts to join Google! Remember, back then, GE was the academy company for HR and Google was this wild start-up that had just gone public. And a lot of the things I've done at Google look totally sane now, but crazy when I suggested them. For example, we're three years into a 100-year study, called gDNA, trying to scientifically understand and test fundamental HR and people issues that are not well-proven, even today: How do you guarantee a team performs well? How do you find people like [NBA forward and shooting guard] Shane Battier, who hide in the background but make everyone around them better? How do you eliminate bias?


Do you have another book in you?


I guess it depends on whether anyone finds Work Rules useful! If they do, I have some ideas about how to think about searching for the perfect job and having an amazing, fulfilling, impactful career. I've had some fun exploring these topics with Tom Friedman of the New York Times and with articles on LinkedIn.


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