Laszlo Bock knew he wasn’t walking into a traditional corporate setting in 2006 when he arrived for his job interview for head of people operations at Google.
Google recruiter Martha Josephson implored Bock, who had done stints at firms like GE and McKinsey & Co., not to wear a suit to his interview. No one wears suits there, she told him—show up in one, and they'll think you don't get them or their culture. Bock acquiesced, but kept a necktie in his jacket pocket just in case.
He got the job, in addition to something rare: an extraordinary perch from which to watch and eventually exert some influence over how a fast-moving web company with plenty of money to spend and people to study conducts itself and maintains its idiosyncratic culture. That's partly why he's written the book Work Rules, which comes out this month. The book aims to give a peek inside why Google organizes itself the way it does, the motivations behind its approach to recruiting—and what more-traditional businesses can learn from its approaches.
Such discussions about the company tend to eventually make their way to its perks, like free gourmet food and fitness classes, the typical envy-inducing stuff of similarly sized tech names in the Valley. Ask Bock what's special about a company famous for cataloging the world's information and for projects reminiscent of sci-fi films like self-driving cars, though, and he has a ready answer: "It's our people," he insists in an interview with Fast Company, acknowledging that it's the kind of answer that can sound a little corny. But it's also a reference to how intensely the company focuses on the hiring process—choosing people well and reaping the rewards from its selectivity.
"We actually did a survey once where we talked to the first 100 people hired at Google and asked them what made the place special, and one of the top two reasons everybody said was the quality of the people," he continued. "Another thing that’s special about the company: We give our people tremendous freedom. And we underpin our people practices with real science and data. We use science to figure out what makes teams work."
It's no secret the company is incredibly choosy with who it picks to become "Googlers." Bock says the company gets more than 2 million applications every year, a flood of correspondence that also includes the occasional oddity.
Bock has received T-shirts with résumés silk-screened on them. He’s also gotten sneakers from someone who "wanted to get their foot in the door." The company also has tried a few left-of-center approaches itself to deal with the crush of applications and interest from prospective hires, like the time in 2004 it ran a billboard in Massachusetts and off the 101 Freeway in California with a cryptic puzzle on it.
The company hoped some curious and enterprising computer scientists out there would see it and be able to solve it, and Google would have thus hit upon an innovative way of adding new talent to its ranks. Google didn’t actually hire anyone as a result of the billboard, but Bock says the company’s records show at least 25 current Googlers mentioned seeing it and thinking it was a fun promotion.
Hiring only several thousand of the 2 million applicants makes Google 25 times more selective than Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, explains Bock, who was born in 1972 in Communist Romania, and says the idea of joining a company founded with the goal of making information available to everyone "was thrilling."
It’s the mission, in other words, that drew him in. Since he joined, the company has grown from 6,000 employees to 60,000. And even though sifting through all those applications may sound like a tall order, it’s still not like those moments you hear about in the book industry, where every now and then an author will get lucky after her manuscript happens to land on the desk of an agent who reads it and champions it all the way to publication.
Google, Bock says, has actually built a sophisticated infrastructure that results in every application getting consideration—and the company even has a team to review applicants who’ve been rejected from the regular process, just to give a second look in case someone potentially valuable has been missed.
Bock recalls once giving a talk in Chicago to a group of local chief human resources officers about the culture at Google. After the presentation, one of the attendees stood and replied, a bit skeptically, about what he’d just heard, saying it was all well and good for Google, but that it has huge profit margins, and can afford to pay up to treat people well: "We can’t all do that."
Bock was about to explain that most of what Google does along these lines—like giving employees the freedom to carve out a percentage of their time to pursue whatever they want—doesn’t actually cost anything. Even in a time of flat wages, he was preparing to explain, you can focus on making your people happy; indeed, that when the economy is at its worst, treating people well matters most.
Before he could respond, someone else shot back: "What do you mean? Freedom is free. Any of us can do this."
"We put a lot of time and effort to work at Google into making this a place where you can be who you are," Bock says. "We’ll even have protests on campus where Googlers are making a statement about political things in the world they think are wrong."
He says Google looks for four attributes it’s figured out will predict whether someone can be successful at the company. They include general cognitive ability—no surprise there, as the company wants the best and brightest—as well as leadership ability, role-related knowledge, and "Googleyness."
About that last one, Google tries not to look for people who "look like us," Bock said. Rather, the intent is to find someone different, offbeat, who can push and challenge the status quo.
About the recruitment of women and minorities, he concedes the company still needs to do better. A report last year found that just 17% of the company’s technology staff is female, but Bock says the company is planning to publish its diversity numbers again this summer and expects "they’ll show a modest improvement."
Some of the other ways Google distinguishes its hiring and workplace culture:
The company actually has a chief culture officer, Stacy Sullivan, charged with making sure "Google’s culture stays true to itself." She built a network of "culture clubs" and teams of local volunteers charged with maintaining the company’s culture in each of its 70-plus offices around the world.
Bock’s Work Rules principles include:
- "Trust your people."
- "Hire only people who are better than you."
- "Don’t confuse development with managing performance."
It’s probably no surprise his favorite video game of all time is 1999’s PC game Planescape: Torment. In it, your character starts the game by awaking in a mortuary with no memory. The rest of the game is spent discovering how in your past lives you’ve done "great good and great evil," waking up after each life with a blank slate and a fresh opportunity to again choose how to live.
At a key point in the game, Bock explains, you’re confronted with the question: What can change the nature of a man?
Similarly, Bock finds himself constantly thinking about what can change the nature of a company and its people—for better and for worse.
"Even if you join a company fresh out of school, as a junior employee or as employee number 1,000,006, you can still be a founder by choosing how you interact with those around you, how you design your workspace, and how you lead," Bock writes. "In doing so, you’ll help create a place that will attract the most talented people on the planet."