How to Hire Employees like Google Does

Google is one of the most enviably successful and innovative companies around. When they do things, people pay attention. Not surprisingly, a great deal of discussion about hiring practices has been generated by two recent New York Times interviews with Google’s Senior VP of people operations. In this post we will discuss what Google tried that didn’t work, what they did to reinvent their hiring process, and (most importantly) how you can do it too.

The interviews “In Head-Hunting, Big Data May Not Be Such a Big Deal” and “How to Get a Job at Google” include some provocative statements about what didn’t add value:

“G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. … We found that they don’t predict anything.”

 “We looked at tens of thousands of interviews, and everyone who had done the interviews and what they scored the candidate, and how that person ultimately performed in their job. We found zero relationship. It’s a complete random mess”

“brainteasers are a complete waste of time. How many golf balls can you fit into an airplane? How many gas stations in Manhattan? A complete waste of time. They don’t predict anything.”

These types of criteria don’t work very well for hiring at Google, and there is a good chance that they don’t work very well for you either. Fortunately, we also know what Google started doing right. Let’s dig a little deeper.

Below is a graphical representation of the basic types of information that we can learn about a job candidate. They range from very general (top) to very specific (bottom).

competency model

It is largely the case that each level determines the one below: A person with a certain preference or pattern of thinking/feeling will be better suited to pick up a certain type of competency, and having that competency is what allows them to perform well on the job.

For example, a person with a preference for attention to fine details (rather than a preference for seeing the “big picture”) might be better able to acquire certain highly technical knowledge, skills, and abilities—and therefore they would perform better in a position in which these things ultimately determine performance.

What works for Google is starting at the top.

Google only found out the hard way that hiring based on school prestige, GPA, and notoriously difficult trick questions in the interview process does not pay off. Instead, their new and improved hiring strategies have a strong focus on employee potential. To again quote the New York Times interview:

“For every job…the No. 1 thing we look for is general cognitive ability, and it’s not I.Q. It’s learning ability.”

When they see high performance in an employee, group, or team—they try to find out where it came from in the first place. What actually caused it. If you can catch more high-potential job candidates upstream, you get more high-quality employees downstream.

If you want to follow Google’s lead, start at the top with the more general factors that are likely to determine performance on the job. Google found that certain personality traits (such as leadership, humility, and assertiveness) are particularly important. Personality assessments add a tremendous value to the hiring process, and are becoming increasingly accessible and efficient thanks to web-based solutions.

Once the candidate pool is narrowed down to a “short list” that you can focus more attention on, the best way to measure competencies is with structured interviews. Decades of research have shown that properly validated structured interviews are highly correlated with general cognitive ability. However, remember not to make the same mistake Google did early on (unstructured interviews that still do not predict performance on the job). It is important to make sure that what you measure in the interview is in fact directly relevant to the job. We previously provided a list of tips on how to create valid structured interviews here.

What doesn’t work for Google is starting at the bottom.

Very specific things from the past (such as the achievements that you might find on a resume) often do not predict future performance outcomes very well. A specific company and job posting already tend to attract a specific type of candidate. Also, most employers screen out candidates with resume features or other indicators suggesting that they are obviously not qualified. The actual remaining candidate pool might not vary on these criteria in a useful way. Even though things like GPA and test scores are probably still meaningful in theory, they are often not useful in practice for ultimately making a hiring decision.

Google innovates because they question everything.

The most important thing that we can learn from Google’s story is that if you really want the best hiring program, the process has to be self-correcting. Even if you think that you are currently using the best criteria to decide whom to hire, you might not be. There may be better options. The only way to find out is to actually test it.

So what do you think? Is there untapped potential in your hiring process? What new hiring methods would you like to try?


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