The meritocratic elitism of Google 

How Google Works is a fascinating book co-authored by Eric Schmidt in which he details, unsurprisingly, how Google works. In the section I just read, he describes how Google sets out to ensure that they only hire A’s, as detailed in loc 1413:

A workforce of great people not only does great work, it attracts more great people. The best workers are like a herd: They tend to follow each other. Get a few of them, and you’re guaranteed that a bunch more will follow. Google is renowned for its fabulous amenities, but most of our smart creatives weren’t drawn to us because of our free lunches, subsidized massages, green pastures, or dog-friendly offices. They came because they wanted to work with the best smart creatives. This “herd effect” can cut both ways: While A’s tend to hire A’s, B’s hire not just B’s, but C’s and D’s too. So if you compromise standards or make a mistake and hire a B, pretty soon you’ll have B’s, C’s, and even D’s in your company. And regardless of whether it works to the benefit or detriment of the company, the herd effect is more powerful when the employees are smart creatives and the company is new. In that case, each person’s relative importance is magnified; early employees are more conspicuous. Also, when you put great people with great people, you create an environment where they will share ideas and work on them. This is always true, but particularly in an early-stage environment.

But how does one ensure that only A’s are hired, safely keeping the potential plague of B’s, C’s and D’s at bay? This seems to be a matter of hiring people with “raw brainpower” because “Intelligence is the best indicator of a person’s ability to handle change” (loc 1478). But this can’t just be any smart person. They have to be Google-y. How do we assess this? By seeing if we like them. Loc 1523:

Another crucial quality is character. We mean not only someone who treats others well and can be trusted, but who is also well-rounded and engaged with the world. Someone who is interesting. Judging character during the interview process used to be fairly easy, since job interviews often included lunch or dinner at a restaurant and perhaps a drink or two, Mad Men style. Such a venue allowed the hiring executive to observe how the candidate comported himself “as a civilian.” What happens when he lets his guard down? How does he treat the waiter and bartender? Great people treat others well, regardless of standing or sobriety.

Hiring smart people who we think are nice. On one level, this is fair enough. On another, it’s deeply worrying, illuminating an elitist impulse – to hire ‘people like us’ with sufficient ‘raw brain power’ to cope – likely to be all the more pernicious because it basically misrecognises itself as egalitarian. They deny that this encourages homogeneity because they deny this entails only hiring candidates that you like:

You must work with people you don’t like, because a workforce comprised of people who are all “best office buddies” can be homogeneous, and homogeneity in an organization breeds failure. A multiplicity of viewpoints—aka diversity—is your best defense against myopia. We could go off on a politically correct tangent on how hiring a workforce that is diverse in terms of race, sexual orientation, physical challenges, and anything else that makes people different is the right thing to do (which it is). But from a strictly corporate point of view, diversity in hiring is even more emphatically the right thing to do. People from different backgrounds see the world differently. Women and men, whites and blacks, Jews and Muslims, Catholics and Protestants, veterans and civilians, gays and straights, Latinos and Europeans, Klingons and Romulans, 101 Asians and Africans, wheelchair-bound and able-bodied: These differences of perspective generate insights that can’t be taught. When you bring them together in a work environment, they integrate to create a broader perspective that is priceless. 102 Great talent often doesn’t look and act like you. When you go into that interview, check your biases at the door103 and focus on whether or not the person has the passion, intellect, and character to succeed and excel.

But how else to interpret the focus on ‘character’, the airport test (would you like to be stuck at an airport with your new hire?) and the whole notion of being Googley? Data driven hiring may hold out the promise of meritocracy but they fail to consider the possibility that these processes constructs ‘the best’ in a way liable to bring about the very outcome they’re trying to avoid. If it’s axiomatic that Google is already filled with ‘the best’ then it follows that the correct new hires will be those resembling the existing staff.

The same goes for managing people once they join you. Just like hiring, managing performance should be driven by data, with the sole objective of creating a meritocracy. You cannot be gender-, race-, and color-blind by fiat; you need to create empirical, objective methods to measure people. Then the best will thrive, regardless of where they’re from and what they look like.

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