Google and How Bad Hiring Practices Can Kill a Company

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One of the annoying things I get to do is watch successful companies that should know better design in failure. I could argue that many of the problems Microsoft has faced this decade go back to bad hiring and internal job placement decisions it made last decade. I'm picking on Google today because I ran into an article written by a recent Google applicant who walks the reader through an interview process that appears to be designed to exclude the most qualified applicants for a marketing job. This likely explains why the company has lots of offerings but seem unable to sell most of them very effectively.


The recent Android campaign, which was surprisingly good, was driven by Verizon, not Google. Sometimes I find Google's mistakes funny, but there is nothing funny about mistreating applicants or employees. Unfortunately, Google is hardly alone and since I spent much of my life trying to prevent or fix this kind of problem, I think it is well past time to get on a soapbox.


Interviews: Flawed by Design


Interviewing is a skill that requires training and lots of practice. Even with that training and adequate practice, though, interviewing is highly subjective and really only tests how well an applicant does under certain artificial circumstances. Against a background check and with an applicant untrained in interviewing, it can determine honesty, ability to respond under pressure and some social skills. Interviews can also help determine if people will get along well with their working team, but team members who are themselves concerned about turf or job security, or who are intimidated about a competent applicant, may blackball that applicant for the wrong reasons.


There are a lot of reasons why interviews are generally unreliable. You can find other examples of bad Google interview processes showcasing some of what I'm talking about, some showcasing a level of stupidity even I've never seen. It is hard for me not to get angry because I see this as avoidable abuse. Against an applicant trained in interviewing, the process is virtually worthless. I've regularly watched people hired into senior positions on false credentials based largely on aced interviews. Ninety percent of the hiring process should be based on a validated skill match and deep background check.


One funny story was about a CEO and his newly hired Harvard MBA VP of Sales going to Australia and having drinks with the VP's buddies. One, who didn't realize who the CEO was, spouted off, "Man, this guy's boss must be an idiot -- not only doesn't my buddy have a Harvard MBA, he never finished college." Strangely enough, in a VP of Sales, the skill needed to convince someone of this is likely more valuable than the MBA, anyway, but he was fired regardless.


Interviews can also create lifelong animosity between the applicant and the company. Assuming that the competence of the applicant was initially assessed correctly, this is incredibly stupid and unnecessary. I was once interviewed for a position in a tech company using a stress interviewing technique that most would feel was abusive if the job didn't require that level of stress. This one didn't. After watching another candidate leave the room in tears and finding out the interviewer had a history of abusing employees, I exited the review process and filed a formal complaint against the interviewer, who subsequently lost their job. I clearly did not think well of the company and eventually reached a position where I could have done the firm substantial harm.


One of the reasons Gateway almost failed was because one employee who eventually ended up at Best Buy as a PC buyer was poorly treated and vengeful. Best Buy was one of the company's largest retailers. In the interview at Google I began with, the writer, who appears more than adequately competent for the job she was being interviewed for, was left with a deep dislike for Google for no purpose. The process cost the company a qualified applicant and may have created a lifetime enemy.


Speed Should Never Outrank Quality


When a company is hiring as fast as Google has been, there is a tendency to focus on a cookie-cutter process that is closer to triage than the custom process that it should be. This is far from uncommon; at Netscape this was even more blatant. There is a massive amount of cost that goes into training a new employee, and employees are the foundation of a firm's revenue and profit. Often when I've gone back and looked at how successful firms went wrong, a major component of the problem has been hiring practices that put the wrong people in jobs. Netscape was a case in point because in forecasting when it would fail, which I did reasonably accurately, I based the work on a hiring practice that was increasingly bringing in poorly qualified people and placing them in critical jobs. I recall one hire in particular that the company was incredibly proud of, from Microsoft. Netscape didn't realize that he was in the process of being managed out of that company due to poor performance. Speed got ahead of quality. The end result was a large number of people that were in the wrong job or shouldn't have even been hired in the first place. No wonder the firm had execution problems.


Process Must Match Job


The process must match the job. In the article I'm basing this piece on, the woman is being hired out of college for an entry marketing position. Yet many of the questions seemed to focus on her math competence, something that would showcase skills closer to an engineer than someone who is creative. Marketing, done right, is a creative position. The questions should have focused on her ability to intuitively come up with ideas that could sell products. This is an entry-level position so you're not looking for expertise but potential. The one marketing question that was asked showcased that she actually did have excellent potential. However, that one answer was overshadowed by questions that appeared to have little to do with the job she was being interviewed for and resulted in Google losing someone that would likely be better than someone else who actually aced this interview. This is the result of not thinking through the process, a use of cookie-cutter questions, and largely incompetent interviewers.


Audit the Process


One interview does not, in and of itself, showcase that Google's process is flawed. This could be an exception and it is viewed through the eyes of the applicant, typically not a very reliable source. However, you can see that the author made the initial cut and that her background and performance in the article are well within the skill set for an entry-level marketing position. In addition, you can see from Google's lack of marketing and PR skills as a company that the firm itself is not getting the skilled people it needs to do an adequate job.


This suggests at the very least that Google's hiring process isn't being audited to make sure it is working optimally. Any process like this should be professionally audited on a regular basis to make sure it is performing as well as it should. The way to do this is by sampling both accepted and rejected candidates by HR management to see if the decisions were being made correctly most of the time and to communicate back mistakes so that the process would improve over time.


I'm picking on Google, but most companies don't audit their hiring process and don't train most of the folks in interviewing who do key interviews. Because most firms also aren't growing at a high rate, they generally can survive this and let internal employee programs pick up the slack but in fast-growth companies this can do massive damage. In any case, the saying we used for computers, "garbage in, garbage out," would seem to work here. Putting quality into the interview process can pay huge dividends.


Building a Path to Failure


To me, there is no excuse for sloppy hiring, firing, or an inappropriate layoff process. I've actually watched one executive argue that he would be vastly more successful without a sales force. Fortunately, he was immediately fired, but it amazes me how many brain-dead employee decisions seem to be happening this year. A company's success is founded on the quality of its employees. If you don't assure and protect that quality, it doesn't matter how successful you were, your best years will always be behind you. Google, following what appears to be a common practice of ignoring the importance of good hiring practices, is painstakingly building a path to failure. The cancer this hiring process is creating is already showcased in its poor PR and marketing skill set and is likely mirrored in other functional company areas. It may take years, as it did with Microsoft, for practices like this to severely affect performance but, once it does, Netscape is the perfect example of what the worst-case scenario will be.


Wrapping Up: By Assuring Your Employees, You Assure Your Future


When you become dominant in a market like Microsoft and Google, your real threats often are not competitors but mistakes you make. The better matched your people are to their jobs, the less of those there are. The financial industry didn't slide because the housing market collapsed; the housing market collapsed because someone put idiots into senior executive jobs. Assuring the quality of your employees should be job one if you want to be successful. I'm amazed at how seldom this gets adequate focus. Assuring you find, hire, and can retain and protect the best people is a great foundation for sustaining a great company regardless of size. Take a moment. When was the last time someone audited your hiring process? Don't you think it is well past time?