What It's Like To Be An "Underperforming" Employee At Google

Courtesy of Twelve/Hachette Book Group.
Google frequently tops the list of best places to work in the U.S. That's not just because of the free snacks and fitness classes. There's also the 80/20 rule (20% of your time dedicated to your passion projects? Sounds like creative heaven) and generous parental leave. Much is made of Google's work culture — and for good reason.

Lazslo Bock, the head of People Operations at Google, shares his experiences — along with advice for anyone navigating the working world — in his new book,
Work Rules. Topics range from how to become a better interviewer to why unequal pay isn't necessarily a bad thing. And, while Work Rules definitely highlights why Google is such an amazing place to work, it's also realistic about the company's shortcomings.

Ahead, we've excerpted a section from Chapter 8, "The Two Tails," about how Google manages its best and worst employees. What happens when you're in the bottom 5% of performers at the world's most influential tech company? Read on to find out.

The biggest opportunities lie in your absolute worst and best employees.  

Help those in need.

What most organizations miss is that people in the bottom tail represent the biggest opportunity to improve performance in your company, and the top tail will teach you exactly how to realize that opportunity. 

Jack Welch popularized the “up or out” model of management described in the first pages of this book, where General Electric employees were rated each year, and the bottom 10% were fired: You either moved up in the organization or you were moved out.

But isn’t there a cost to this? It takes time and money to recruit new people, who often are more expensive than current employees and who need to learn the new jobs — and even then may not succeed! In a study of over a thousand research analysts at investment banks, Professor Boris Groysberg of Harvard Business School found that “star analysts suffer an immediate and lasting decline in performance” when they move to a new company. Their prior success had been dependent on their coworkers, resources available to them, their fit with the company’s culture, and even the personal reputation or brand they had built up.

In an ideal world, you would have hired all the right people to begin with, and if you’re running an objective, well-calibrated hiring process, you’re probably pretty close. But even then, you will make mistakes, and those people will sink to the low end of your performance curve.

At Google, we regularly identify the bottom-performing 5% or so of our employees. These individuals form the bottom tail of our performance distribution. Note that this happens outside our formal performance-management process. We’re not looking to fire people: We’re finding the people who need help.
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I confess that we don’t have a reliable absolute measure for performance for every job, and we don’t force a distribution of ratings, because different teams perform at different levels. It would be madness to force the manager of a team of all superstars to rank someone as failing. So this is a human process, not an algorithmic one, where managers and the People Operations team look at individuals. In practice, the bottom tail does end up including those who “need improvement,” but it also captures “skimmers,” people who have been skimming along the lower end of meeting expectations for a long time. Because we track the 5% only at the highest organizational levels, some groups end up with no one in this group and some end up with more than 5%.

We wondered if we should be firing these performers, as many other companies do, but that would have meant culling 20% of our employees each year (5% each quarter). It would also have implied that our hiring approach wasn’t working. If we were successfully screening for people who are more than “brains on a stick” — brilliant, adaptable, conscientious Googlers — we shouldn’t need to conduct regular cullings.

So rather than following the traditional path of making “poor performance” the kiss of death, we decided to take a different approach: Our goal is to tell every person in the bottom 5% that they are in that group. That is not a fun conversation to have. But it’s made easier by the message we give these people: “You are in the bottom 5% of performers across all of Google. I know that doesn’t feel good. The reason I’m telling you this is that I want to help you grow and get better.” 
In other words, this isn’t a “shape up or ship out” conversation; it’s a sensitive talk about how to help someone develop. A colleague once described it as “compassionate pragmatism.” Poor performance is rarely because the person is incompetent or a bad person. It’s typically a result of a gap in skill (which is either fixable or not) or will (where the person is not motivated to do the work). In the latter case, it could be a personal issue or a useful sign that there is something bigger wrong with the team that needs to be addressed.

In fact, the way we de‑emphasize role-related knowledge in hiring leaves us a bit vulnerable to this issue, because we like to hire people who may not know how to do a job. We have faith that almost all of them will figure it out, and along the way are more likely to invent a novel solution than someone who’s “been there, done that.”

When they don’t, we first offer a range of training and coaching to help them build their capabilities. Note that this is very different from the typical approach of hiring people and then trying to train them into being stars. Our interventions here are for the small handful of people who struggle most, rather than for everyone. If that doesn’t work, we then help the person find another role within Google. Typically, this results in the person’s performance improving to average levels. This may not sound like much, but think about it this way: Out of a group of a hundred people, Jim was one of the five worst performers. After this intervention, Jim was about the 50th best performer. Not a superstar, but Jim is now contributing more than 49 other people, where before he had been better than only three or four people. What would your company be like if all the worst people got that much better? And if even the bottom 49 were still better than the competition?

For the remaining people, some choose to leave and others we need to fire. It sounds harsh, but they tend to end up happier because we’ve shown sensitivity to their situation and invested in them along the way, and we give them time to find an organization where they can excel. I once had to terminate someone who worked for me, who upon exiting told me, “I’d never be able to do your job.” I said, “You can, but at a place where the demands are different.” Three years later, he called me to share that he’d been promoted to chief human resources officer of a Fortune 500 company, and was thriving. He said the pace was a bit slower than Google, but it fit him perfectly. And he’d been able to become a trusted counselor to the CEO precisely because of his measured, thoughtful style.

This cycle of investing in the bottom tail of the distribution means your teams improve...a lot. People either improve dramatically or they leave and succeed elsewhere. 

From the book WORK RULES!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead. Copyright (c) 2015 by Laszlo Bock. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.      

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