Google’s Laszlo Bock on employing recent grads, the “big pivot” for new managers, and HR neglect

Tougher than riding a bike
Tougher than riding a bike
Image: AP/Paul Sakuma
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Google has added more than 40,000 employees over the past 10 years.

The vast majority of that hiring spree has taken place under Laszlo Bock, with the company since 2006, and now head of all of Google’s human resources functions, or “People Operations.” Under Bock, the company has moved from a stringent—but extremely slow—hiring process to a uniquely data-intensive, “self-replicating talent machine” (as termed by former Intel CEO Paul Otellini) that’s widely emulated in Silicon Valley, and beyond.

The company’s cutting-edge research has led it to disregard college prestige in job applications, to dramatically change its pay policies, and even change the way it presents food in its cafeterias. What’s more, it is affecting the management policies of other companies, in areas like the length of maternity leave, and support for new mothers.

Speaking to Quartz ahead of the release of his book “Work Rules!”Bock told us about why HR is so slow to change, his long-term goals, the toughest part of becoming a manager at the company, and why Google’s hiring process is mostly the same for fresh college graduates, non-college graduates, and experienced hires.

This interview has been edited, and condensed for clarity

Quartz: What’s the biggest adjustment for new managers at Google?

Bock: As you sort of go through your career, you get rewarded and promoted for being logical, for having better insights than the people around you. There’s also politics and so on in some organizations. But everything you experience teaches you that you need to be assertive, and out in front, and making all of the decisions.

Then you get to Google, and your team is as smart or smarter than you are, and the trick isn’t making the decisions as a leader, but figuring out how to get best out of the team. It’s a really big pivot for a lot of people.

You realize that you have a lot less levers, control and power than you do at a lot of other companies. You don’t decide who to hire, or how big a bonus somebody gets, you don’t decide who gets promoted.

You have to realize, first of all that you’re surrounded by amazing people, and number two, you don’t have any of the traditional leverage that’s used to to get teams to do things. You’re forced to figure out how to add value without relying on power, and you do that by influencing, by giving people the opportunity to learn, and giving people more freedom. 

Why has HR been so slow to change at so many companies?

I think part of it is that, as a profession, the HR field is very unaware, there has not been a lot of reliance on data, or on facts, or science. For the last 30 years its been a conversation about how do we get a seat at the table, we have to understand the business, all these sort of management tropes.

When you want to take a scientific look ask questions like, “We opened a new office, are people happy, sad or bored?” Or, “What’s the marginal return on every dollar of compensation?” Those kinds of questions aren’t asked very often. The marketing field transformed over the last 20 years with the application of data, it used to just be high level surveys and what ad execs thought. Now you’re seeing a similar transformation in the people field.

Business leaders tend not to ask as much of HR. You become a CEO by being really good at a couple things. You get the job because there’s a problem that needs to be solved, and you’re the best person to solve it. If the company’s not growing, you hire a CEO that understands growth. 

But rarely do you get a CEO who has ascended through their expertise on the people side. So the people department suffers from neglect, and doesn’t always have the capability to ask these kinds of questions.

Do you have a different hiring approach for recent graduates who have less experience?

No, we approach those kind of candidates exactly the same way. What we hire for is not so much expertise, or experience as learning ability. We talk about emergent leadership, the notion that we don’t want you to be the sort of person who’s jumping in the captain’s chair all the time, we want you to jump in when there’s a problem, but even more importantly, step away when the problem or the need for expertise goes away.

So the assessment and interview process is the same. In fact, when we hire people that haven’t gone to college, and we have a fair number of those, what we really want to ask is again how they approach solving problems how they lead, how they work with members of a team, are they open to learning, and do they bring something new and diverse in terms of perspective and life experience? It’s the same at every level of the company.

Why was Project Oxygen (Google’s effort to figure out if management matters) so important for the company?

We discovered something beautiful, which is that, once you figure out what makes people better managers, you don’t actually don’t need to build a ton of training infrastructure.

You just need to say, these are the five or 10 important things, in our case eight, and you survey people, and ask them how their manager is doing on each element. Then you tell the manager where they scored against everyone else, without tying it to pay or promotion or whatever, without any penalty—it’s just purely developmental.

The managers start working to get better. Because it turns out, if any of us is told we’re not doing that well and there’s no consequence, intrinsically, internally, we want to improve.

What are your long-term goals at Google?

I think there are three things that are very cool. One is the question of unconscious bias and diversity. A year and a half ago, we did a tremendous amount of work developing an unconscious bias curriculum. We rolled it out, and found that more than 95% of the company not only says they recognize subtle signs of bias, but that they feel a responsibility to act on it.

I should say we’ve never seen differences in pay or promotion or anything like that when it comes to gender or race or sexual orientation. But we want people feel like the place is just and fair.

The second area is looking at a successor to Project Oxygen. Project Oxygen was all about if managers matter, and what makes managers great. The successor to that is trying to figure out what makes teams great. We’ve done really cool work on that, it’s still in the early stages, and it’s still more labor-intensive than it is scalable.

But the question of how do teams work, it’s one of these things that’s not explained externally, in a replicable way. A lot of people have opinions about teams, but nobody can say here’s a taxonomy of problems, and for this kind of problem, here’s the kind of team you need. So that’s very cool.

And the final thing, it’s kind of a 20% thing, but a colleague has been toying with the idea of whether would it be possible to help solve unemployment (written about in more detail here). You’ll always have frictional unemployment, if I quit a job, I move to New York, it takes me time to drive.  

But a lot of unemployment evolves from information asymmetry, meaning I have a taxonomy of skills and abilities that are hard to articulate, and resumes don’t do a good job of capturing them. Employers have a set of jobs, but are terrible at both articulating what they need, and actually filtering candidates. 

If you can somehow bridge that information gap, and better match people with jobs, in the short term you can get a lot of people jobs that don’t have them. But in the medium term, you can do really interesting things. If you’re a welder in Detroit, we can say you should go to nursing school and move to Atlanta, and this is the program you should go to, because this nursing school is correlated with people getting jobs. And Atlanta has the most growth in that area. 

It’s very interesting stuff. But that’s all a little in the future.