In an exclusive interview, Laszlo Bock, Google’s senior vice president for people operations, says that getting the most out of your staff is all about trust and openness
Presiding over the effectiveness and wellbeing of the 55,000-plus people who work for the most powerful enterprise in the world – one which, with its free meals, yoga classes and massages, is nearly always at the summit of ‘best companies to work for’ lists – is a pretty sizeable challenge. So how does Google do it?
For Laszlo Bock – the company’s senior vice president for people operations – a congenial, trusting and respectful relationship between management and employees is at the core of its evidently effective approach. “A lot of organisations fail by not assuming good intent or trusting their people,” he tells Director. “Organisations should give their people freedom and trust them – and the results will amaze them.”
Bock believes that openness and honesty make up the foundation of this approach, citing the fact that Google chairman Eric Schmidt shares his quarterly report not only with the board of directors but all Google employees, hosting a presentation at which ‘Googlers’, as the corporation’s full-time employees are nicknamed, are positively encouraged to quiz him about his latest findings. “No questions are off-limits,” he says.
Bock also describes an internal process referred to in-house as ‘dogfooding’; Google employees test internal products before they’re released to the outside world, he says. “Whether you work in YouTube or HR, you get to test apps, products or hardware and give your feedback on how to make them better. As a Googler, you’re trusted not to leak information about these new products.” Breaches of trust, he adds, are rare.
Of course, this inalienable faith in its employees’ integrity would be undermined if Google didn’t have solid recruitment policies in place to ensure that the right type of people are on the payroll. Asked which widely accepted HR process he would consign to the dustbin of history, Bock responds: “Putting hiring decisions in the hands of one person. This is madness to me. It leads people to hire for the short-term, or to make compromises just to fill a role.”
Google’s recently retired senior vice president Alan Eustace once proclaimed that a top-notch engineer is worth 300 times more than an average one. Given this philosophy, Google’s reputedly vast recruitment budget seems justified. “I believe one hire that isn’t right can be toxic for other employees,” adds Bock. “It’s worth over-investing in your hiring process upfront and making sure multiple decision-makers weigh in on any given candidate.”
Having invested so much time, money and expertise, staff retention is, of course, a major priority – and, according to Bock, isn’t a problem one can just throw money at. “When we ask people why they’re leaving Google, it’s rarely about money,” he says. “Statistically, having a fantastic manager matters – great managers at Google have higher performers, happier employees and less turnover. Great managers are people who care about their reports, but perhaps most importantly, they support career development goals, which in our annual survey is the most important driver of keeping people at Google. People managers are your secret weapons.”
Maintaining and improving performance is another area in which Google has adopted a two-pronged strategy. “We make it a point not to confuse development with managing performance,” says Bock. “We’ve evolved our system to show Googlers where they stand. We’re still working on it, but we’ve learnt some important things along the way, such as setting goals that are specific and ambitious and splitting rewards conversations from development conversations. Combining the two kills learning.”
And, when it comes to underperformers, the Googleplex’s people operations department takes a nurturing approach: “We regularly identify the bottom-performing five per cent of employees,” he says. “We’re not looking to fire people: we’re finding the people who need help. This isn’t a ‘shape up or ship out’ conversation – it’s a sensitive talk about how to help someone develop. A colleague once described it as ‘compassionate pragmatism’. Poor performance is rarely because the person is incompetent or a bad person. It’s typically a result of a gap in skill.”
Since Bock’s arrival at Google in 2006, the business has grown from 6,000 employees to 60,000, and currently receives more than two million job applications every year. And the company has a clear game plan. “We’re three years into a 100-year study, called gDNA, [which is] trying to scientifically understand and test fundamental HR and people issues that are not well proven even today, such as how to guarantee a team performs well,” he says.
The company’s ultimate goal, it would seem, is to be at the forefront of a paradigm shift in how companies treat their most valuable asset: their employees. “It’s so important that the workplace be an inclusive environment where everyone feels safe being who they are,” he says. “Not only are people happier when they come to work, but they’re also more productive and feel more free to create.”
Laszlo Bock shares insights from within Google in his new book Work Rules! (John Murray, £20)
1993 Graduates from Pomona College, California, with a bachelor of arts in international relations, before going on to a master’s in business administration at the Yale University School of Management
1999 Joins McKinsey & Company as a management consultant
2006 Becomes Google’s senior vice president of people operations, having previously held roles including vice president of compensation and benefits for GE Commercial Equipment Financing
2010 Named Human Resources Executive of the Year by HR Executive magazine
2015 Bock’s book, Work Rules! Insights from inside Google that will transform how you live and lead, is published
See Laszlo Bock discuss Google’s acclaimed management techniques at