Hiring IT Staff: Learning from Google's Mistakes

Monday Jan 15th 2007 by Rob Enderle
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How should tech firms find staff? Many of the most common methods appear deeply flawed.

Google, like most companies since the 1970s, has focused on grades as one of the key requirements for hiring. As a result, it probably not only lost out on good people, but ended up with a lot of folks who were not the best the company could get for a given job. Google recently announced they are devaluing grades in order to focus more on personality and experience.

Google continues a heavy focus on interviewing but has also cut down on the number of interviews and forced a faster turnaround on decisions as they attempt to grow the company quickly. It isn’t hard to remember an earlier fast-rising company, Netscape, that went down a similar path. And the decline of that company was, at least partially, attributable to the large numbers of unqualified people that resulted.

Google is to be admired for what there are attempting. But, unlike the company’s other interesting ideas (most of which have worked out) they are now entering an area that has been deeply researched, and one they too should spend a little time on before they catastrophically break what may not be that badly broken.

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Given that interviewing is known to be a very unreliable way to select employees, you would think the tech industry would apply some type of technical test to applicants that, in a short period of time, could assess by reviewing background, education, and personality whether they come close enough to the ideal to be worth taking a risk on.

Previous Decades

Back in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s there was a lot of work done to do exactly that. Massive studies were used to develop and refine tests that applicants could be given that would assess their capabilities and best match them to jobs. For many of us these tests started in high school as part of a process to help us pick careers we would find rewarding. While relatively unreliable at first, over time and with experience they increasingly were able to help parents work with their children to mold education plans to best match natural skills.

But the problem with testing was that it tended to preserve the status quo and put similar people together. This probably reduced tension and increased productivity but it also tended to lock out ethnic diversity, which clearly was a major problem. As a result testing was tossed out and as companies grew up they focused largely on big-name schools and grade point average for selection. This didn’t solve diversity problems either, so programs to ensure diversity were implemented, which often allowed lower standards for new hires. While some of these new employees should have had been offered more on-the-job training requirements, this was seldom done, and as the workforce became more diverse, social problems related to uneven skills and metrics sometimes resulted.

Grades as a Metric

Grades are often a poor metric of future on the job performance. “A” students often get their grades by gaming the system or by working very hard largely on their own as opposed to collaboratively. Courses are designed to provide an educational framework but seldom focus on the very real day-to-day tasks needed by a company. In short, the scores often have little or nothing to do with the employees’ actual capability and they may not, depending on how the system was gamed, not even have anything to do with how hard the student actually worked.

This isn’t to say grades have no value, only that they should be taken as just one metric and that – without some due diligence – may not even be reliable as that one metric. If you aren’t careful, if you focus on “A” students you may simply end up with a lot of employees who are gaming the company and not doing much in terms of actual productive work. You see this in firms where it seems that accountability is lacking, meetings proliferate, and projects don’t meet expectations or timelines. The employees are simply reflecting the skill set they were hired with and probably are being rewarded for.

Interviewing is Unreliable

The biggest problem with interviewing is that few are trained to do it well and there are a lot of ways to become expert at being interviewed. The second is that it is often used abusively and can either drive away a candidate and turn them against the company or result in resentments the candidate can carry into the job. If interviewing is to be used reliably it needs to be monitored, it needs to take place over a very short period of time (one or two days) and it needs to be largely done by people who are actually trained to do it right. Otherwise there is little overall value to the process other than allowing the candidate and interviewer to meet and, for that a more informal setting might actually be more valuable.

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Strong background checks are vastly more capable of helping determine whether an employee is a good hire but often, in the rush, background checks are either not done or done superficially shifting the weight of the review to interviewing, which won’t take that weight. Timing is important as well. With good background information the trained interviewer can ask questions tailored to the candidate and, in a relatively short period of time, reach a decision that is backed up by both background facts and impression. Done the other way around, even a trained interviewer has nothing but a resume to work from and a generic question set which will reduce dramatically the effectiveness of their process.

Google vs. Microsoft

Both companies have had a heavy reliance on education as a foundation for their selection process, and employees and managers in both companies are complaining about the predictable result: reduced productivity and increased frustration.

Google is trying to fix their process by lowering the value of education as a metric, however there is no indication that they are providing the training needed to make interviewing more effective. Eric Schmidt’s comments that he wants to increase the standards for new people so they are qualified for jobs 2 or 3 levels above where they are hired may actually create more problems than it solves. People who are overqualified for jobs are seldom happy in them and may focus more on getting out of the job than on doing it right. More important: can you imagine how hard it would be to lead a group of folks that thought they were better qualified for the boss’s job than the actual boss is?

The underlying problem is that too few people have actually studied HR from a behavioral standpoint. That goes back to the loss of testing, because it was testing that drove this line of thinking. And once it died, HR largely became a compliance organization with little ability or authority to focus on actual hiring quality.

One of the lessons here, and one Netscape learned rather dramatically, is that learning on the job – particularly when it comes to something as critical as staffing quality – can be an incredibly costly practice. While we admire Google for trying to do something about a problem that is clearly endemic to the technology industry, given that they are a search organization we would suggest they actually research the problem first before making decisions that could turn their high flying company into the next Netscape.

In this end, this is what you should take away from this: People truly are your most important asset. If you don’t select them properly, train them adequately, and assure a good match between their skills and the job they are actually being asked to do, the end result won’t be good for your company. And while you may be able to dodge the problem yourself for awhile, in many cases it probably will come back to haunt you as well.

One rule I’ve generally found to be true is that if you take care of your people they will take care of you. If you don’t, the same words apply but “take care” takes on a completely different, and very negative, meaning.

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