Yvonne Agyei, the tech giant’s international HR head, on its unexpectedly process-driven hiring methods – and the search for ‘Googleyness’

The popular perception of Google’s recruitment process is a fun-filled mix of gimmicky games, endless interviews and mind-bending conundrums. But according to the Silicon Valley start-up’s international HR head, there’s a lot more humdrum science to it than you might expect.

At the Future Talent Conference in London, Yvonne Agyei – Google’s vice president, people operations – explained that recruitment was “where we invest most as an HR organisation”, with 60 per cent of HR personnel dedicated to hiring.

“That’s partly because we are growing significantly, but also it’s just really important to get the right people in,” she said. “All Googlers are responsible for hiring, and bringing in people we term ‘good for Google’.”

HR, said Agyei, takes the lead in all recruitment, with hiring managers unable to make actual hiring decisions: “We intentionally take away that power. We don’t want people to hire their friends, and we don’t want to compromise on quality. It’s tempting to bring someone in just because you want bums on seats.”

The quest to banish nepotism and increase accountability has led to a rigorous recruitment paper trail. All interviews take 45 minutes, following which detailed feedback is sent to a hiring committee, including questions and verbatim responses and interviewers’ impressions, as well as the candidate’s CV and academic background.

The committee is responsible for rubber-stamping hiring decisions, and can also request further interviews if it feels questions haven’t been relevant or probing enough. Google became notorious for averaging around nine interviews per hire, but Agyei said it was now deploying a ‘rule of four’ to streamline its processes: “You must make a decision within four interviews – you ought to have enough information on anyone by then.”

But what is Google actually looking for, and how does it know when it’s found it? Agyei outlined four key attributes every employee should have:

  • General cognitive ability – an assessable level of intelligence, often tested through logic-based questions, though these are grounded in technical realities rather than the abstract brain-teasers that have become legendary in Silicon Valley.
  • Role-relevant knowledge – the least important attribute, according to Agyei, who said Google would be happy to hire someone who ticked their other boxes but needed to be taught technical capabilities.
  • Leadership – the ability, or potential, to manage is essential in all roles, said Agyei, because even someone hired into an entry-level position might be leading within a year or two given the fast-paced nature of the business. “Plus, we are a really flat organisation and you’re likely to be in meetings with people more senior than you. You need to be able to offer your opinions.”
  • ‘Googleyness’ – this intangible quality “isn’t the same as cultural fit”, said Agyei. It is best explained as a sense that the hire is ‘good for Google’ and that they have a particular tolerance for ambiguity. Engineers, for example, are hired into a general pool and won’t be told where they will work (and who they will be led by) until they have accepted an offer. The business believes Googleyness is what makes people work well together, and is investigating whether it can quantify and account for this quality among its most successful teams.