case study: employer branding at Google.

The main engine room of Google’s operations in Europe, Africa and the Middle East is its engineering center in Zurich, Switzerland. The ‘Googlers’ – or ‘Zooglers’ as the Zurich engineers call themselves – are not only chosen for their technical skills, but also what Elodie Lhuillier, HR Business Partner, Google Switzerland, described to us as their “Gooogleyness” – the ability to thrive in an environment of ambiguity, uncertainty and constant change. 

The rigor of Google’s selection process is something of a legend within the technology industry. Yet, the approach is actually “pretty basic,” says Ms Lhuillier. Google believes that the baffling brainteasers and other such off-the-wall interview approaches used by some firms use to pick out candidates with exceptional cognitive skills are a waste of time. Instead, Google prefers structured behavioral as well as hypothetical interviews and a consistent approach to assessing people. So why does Google use such structured techniques to find people who can think in imaginative, innovative and ultimately unstructured ways?

 

Want to know something, want to find something, chances are you’ll ‘Google it’. And the success of the search engine has provided the launch pad for services ranging from shopping, payments, advertising and translation to digital analytics, development and cloud storage.  

Behind the apparent ease of all these applications is a highly sophisticated engineering operation spearheaded by the Zurich Googlers or ‘Zooglers’. “Our engineers get to work on product developments for services such as Search, geo products, YouTube, Gmail and Google calendar, used by millions of people worldwide. Projects like these require skills in everything from software development and software testing to system and network engineering,” says Ms Lhuillier.

The engineers are generally highly qualified (around a third have PhDs). But rather than necessarily looking for people with top grades, the selection process is designed to identify candidates who have a particular set of defined capabilities and provide a good fit for Google.

“The capabilities we want fall into four main areas,” Ms Lhuillier continues. “First, we look at how the candidate thinks. We want people who can learn, adapt to new situations, and solve difficult problems in real life work situations. Second, we check they have the necessary knowledge. For engineering candidates, in particular, this includes checking their coding skills and technical areas of expertise. But we want people who have a variety of strengths and passions, not just isolated skill sets. Leadership is the third key area. We’ll want to know how they’ve flexed different muscles in different situations in order to mobilize a team. Rather than just a position they’ve held, what we’re looking for is the ability and readiness to step and take the lead when the situation demands it. Last but not least in the profile of the ideal candidate is what we call ‘Googleyness’. We want to get a feel for what makes them, well, them. We also want to make sure this is a place they’ll thrive, so we’ll be looking for signs of comfort with ambiguity and their collaborative nature.”

freedom to amaze

Google’s profile and reputation for innovation give it considerable appeal to potential candidates. But Ms Lhuillier believes that the way the company thinks about its people and promotes personal fulfilment are equally important elements of its employer brand. “We’re very conscious of how big a role work plays in people’s lives and the importance of meaning within it. We want to be known as a company that genuinely values our people and gives them the freedom to amaze. Research tells us that organizations are more successful when they put people first, trust them and treat them like owners. It also shows that freedom-based organizations perform better than fear-based ones,” says Ms Lhuillier.

So how is Google looking to develop a more empowered workplace? “Since Google was founded in 1998, we’ve experimented a lot with our culture and management practices. The results from our most recent research, which was based on more than 200 interviews with employees, were fascinating as they show that who is on a team is less important to its success than how the team members structure their work, interact with each other and view their contributions,” says Ms Lhuillier. “Among the things we learned from the study is the importance of people being able to count on each other to deliver high quality work and feeling safe enough with each other to take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed. The other key dynamic for success is the feeling that the work is personally important (i.e. meaning) and what they do matters (i.e. impact).” 

Ms Lhuillier is keen to stress that Google doesn’t have all the answers stemming from this research. It has therefore set up a website to help organizations share ideas and experiences (https://rework.withgoogle.com). But Google Switzerland’s strong showing in the Randstad Award survey shows that it is making progress in not only creating an attractive employer brand overall – it is the company people in Switzerland most want to work for – but also in the specific areas that it sees as vital to its people mission. This includes being rated number one for training, interesting job content, career progression opportunities and pleasant working atmosphere.

identifying future Googlers

The way Google reaches out to candidates and conveys its employer brand reflects this desire to find people who can thrive within the Google environment, both at a personal level and as part of a team. The careers website allows Googlers to explain what the business expects, and what life within the company is really like. The people featured include Reto Strobl, who is an engineering manager, based in Zurich. Mr Strobl talks about the great people he works with and the impact they can have – it’s “fun to see bloggers writing about a technology you’ve worked on,” he says. But he’s also frank about the challenges, which for him include having to work across time zones and sometimes having to travel abroad when you have a family.

Despite the thousands of applications received every day, Google is keen to ensure that it engages with candidates on a personal level. “Each application is reviewed by a recruiter to make sure we let no great candidate pass through unnoticed. We also make the best use of our referral system to make sure that suitable candidates in our employees’ networks are able to apply and be considered,” says Ms Lhuillier.

The interview process is subject to the same emphasis on personal interaction. “The process is actually pretty basic,” says Ms Lhuillier. “The path to getting hired usually involves an initial conversation with a recruiter, a phone interview and a day of onsite interviews at one of our offices. Some interviews might also take place over videoconference. 

“To give candidates a sense of what working at Google is really like, some of the interviewers could be potential teammates, but candidates may also speak to people working in other teams. This helps us see how the candidates might collaborate and fit in at Google overall. Independent committees of Googlers play a crucial role as they help to ensure we’re hiring for the long-term. This includes reviewing feedback from all of the interviewers to make sure our hiring process is fair and that we’re holding true to our ‘good for Google’ standards,” Ms Lhuillier continues. “We’ve spent a lot of time making our hiring process as efficient as possible – reducing time-to-hire and increasing our communications to candidates. While involving Googlers in our process does take longer, we believe it’s worth it. Our early Googlers identified these principles more than ten years ago, and it is what allows us to hold true to who we are as we grow.”

structured approach

One of the distinguishing features of the interview process is how highly structured it is. “We ensure that our interviewers are well trained, calibrated and use structured interviewing techniques. For us, structured interviewing means using the same interview questions, grading candidate responses on the same scale, and making hiring decisions based on consistent, predetermined qualifications,” says Ms Lhuillier. 

So why is the process so structured? Google believes that structure allows interview teams to get to know the real candidate and ensure assessments are objective. “Research shows that during first encounters human beings tend to make snap, unconscious judgments, which are heavily influenced by unconscious biases and beliefs. This can result in the interviewer shifting from assessing the candidate’s competencies to hunting for evidence that confirms their initial impressions without realizing it. Research also shows that structured interviews are more objective than unstructured interviews, even for jobs that are themselves unstructured and this is why we use them at Google.”

applying engineering principles 

So what can other businesses learn from Google? Great cars handle easily and perform well because of great engineering. And that engineering comes together through a continuous process of idea generation, trial, error and refinement. Google applies the same engineering principles to its products. And after a lot of trial and error they’ve opted for a highly standardized and systematic approach to recruitment. This might seem counterintuitive when trying to pick out people with creative and problem-solving minds. Crucially, however. Google believes that this approach is the best indicator of how people will behave when they come up against ambiguity, are asked to lead or are confronted by challenges they’ve never experience before. 

 

employer branding at Google Switzerland 

Google is the company people in Switzerland would most would like to work for, as rated in theRandstad Award 2016 research. It was rated one number one for good training, interesting job content, career progression opportunities and pleasant work atmosphere.

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