HR—The Toughest Job (Laszlo Bock)

“[HR] You have the hardest job in business,” says Laszlo Bock, former SVP of People Operations at Google.

stressBock’s remarks came at the SHRM Annual Conference and Exposition, held recently in New Orleans. Bock offered a series of tips for managers, gleaned from his recent book, Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead.

Bock’s Work Rules

  1. Give your work meaning. Bock told of research at Yale involving telephone workers who raised funds for college scholarships. In an effort to raise productivity, scholarship recipients visited once a month and told their stories to the fundraisers. Funds raised went up 400 percent! The people found meaning in their otherwise routine work, Bock says.
  2. Trust. Bock told the story of a tee shirt manufacturing center. Average output was 80 shirts day. The process was highly defined and controlled. As an experiment, the workers were given freedom to arrange production as they liked—trusted to “do it however you want.” Production went up to 150 shirts per day. The price to the manufacturer dropped from 18 cents per shirt to 11 cents per shirt. And, the workers made more because they were paid on piecework. “Give a little more freedom than you are comfortable with,” Bock, advises.
  3. Hire people better than you. “Better in some meaningful way,” Bock says. That often means avoiding “conformational bias,” Bock says. In a research project, two trained PhD psychologists interviewed candidates for 30 minutes and wrote evaluations. Then tapes of the sessions were shown to college sophomores. The college sophomores were able to reach conclusions essentially similar to those of the psychologists in about 2 seconds.
  4. Minimum 50 percent compensation spread between average and top performers. In most systems, top performers are soon redlined and their raises are curtailed or eliminated. Think about LeBron James, Bock said. Yes, he makes a lot of money, but it’s obvious he’s worth more than the average player. Bill Gates is reputed to have said that a great software engineer is worth 10,000 times more than an average one. However, when you do institute a 100 percent differential, be sure you can explain it, Bock says.
  5. Nudge. Make small changes that incrementally make a big difference, Bock says. In the Google food stations, they offered several healthy items and M&Ms, all displayed in clear containers. When they instead put the M&Ms in a container that employees couldn’t see through (still labeled “M&Ms”), eating of M&Ms dropped substantially.
  6. Productivity. Get new employees going right away, Bock says. Send an email to each new employee—during your first week, schedule a one-on-one with your manager, write some code and post it, go out and meet some people, etc., and send essentially the same email to the person’s manager. Between the two of them, they will get the new person productive the first week.

Bock also had some tips on fighting bias. To fight bias, do two things, Bock says:

  • Clarify before the interview the set of attributes you need the person to have and interview to those attributes.
  • Never let the hiring manager make the decision (assign to a committee)—either they are effected by confirmation bias, or they are desperate to make a hire, both of which mean sacrificing quality of hire.