As human resources director at search engine Google, Liane Hornsey has the best of both worlds – a successful company with the charm of a start-up. But how important is HR to Google’s unique brand of creativity and innovation? Gareth Vorster finds out.
Just like Willy Wonka and his fictional Chocolate Factory, the management of internet giant Google believe its chief competitive advantage is surprise. But while the introverted Wonka went to extremes to ensure that the secrets of his chocolates weren’t leaked to his competitors, Google’s success is no secret.
Liane Hornsey, director EMEA for HR and staffing, Google
The web heavyweight still has the charm and air of a start-up company, with sweet jars, a free canteen, a games room and a vending machine in the hallway. Beneath its fluffy exterior, however, there is a collective ‘click’, and the tapping sound of keyboards in the open-plan office is clearly audible.
The face behind its people strategy, Hornsey started her career outside HR. She has a commercial background in sales and marketing and then moved into change management. “I had no desire to work in HR whatsoever,” she says. “I moved into it because a company I worked for wanted someone to work on organisational change and transition. That transition was about making the company more organisationally focused and I was in sales and marketing so they pulled me to be an internal consultant.”
Hornsey then got involved with organisational design and HR, followed by a move into the function proper in 1992.
“HR here at Google is genuinely different from anywhere else,” she says. “I have worked in some young and funky environments, in dot-com, and in the music industry. It’s all about creativity and innovation here. It’s about trying to do stuff that’s different for our people, so we hire people from an HR point of view who we think can be innovative.”
Hornsey likes to compare the atmosphere at Google to campus life. “What you have to understand about our founders is that they went to university they were PhD students and then founded Google. That is really what we are trying to build here. It’s not necessarily about youth, but it is about vibrancy,” she points out.
But success doesn’t come through free orange juice, and Hornsey insists that the funky exterior the company projects comes with a purpose. “You can cut it in two ways. You can look at what I call the fluff – the games room, the table football, Hershey bars, and all that nice stuff. And then there are the more fundamental policy issues. We do make sure our managers are approachable, we do run dress-down days, and make it informal. So there is the stuff you see and the underpinning stuff you don’t see that is in the fabric,” she says.
However, in a climate where HR increasingly needs to demonstrate hard business statistics and its relevance to the bottom line, it is interesting that Google refuses to divulge staff numbers and retention figures. Hornsey believes retention isn’t a problem at the company because it puts so much effort into recruitment, and staff enjoy the funky environment and perks that come with it. “It’s a great culture, and the founders are genuinely people-orientated. Our people are key,” she asserts.
“One of the things this organisation does very differently to others is that we put a lot of energy into the front end. Many of our managers – at all levels – spend a significant amount of time hiring. We hire by consensus, and the reason for this is that if we hire somebody, we want to keep them.”
HR at Google goes under the name of People Operations, designed to underline the fact that it is not an administrative function. The team is made up of general HR business partners, internal consultants, line managers, learning and development and recruitment. There are also specialists in compensation and benefits, but most work in general HR, are business partners, or internal consultants.
And despite its refusal to divulge some of its key numbers, Google is extremely data-driven. “The founders have PhDs in computer science, so I’m absolutely held responsible for measure,” insists Hornsey.
Measuring positives not negatives
However, some of its methods might surprise HR managers from a more traditional background. “I don’t measure sickness because it is not an issue at this company,” she explains. “We tend to measure the positives not the negatives. A lot of HR is trying to catch out the people who aren’t good, so measure the people who are sick, for example. I do measure how much recognition is going on in the place, but I don’t measure sickness,” she says.
One of the positive developments Hornsey has been involved in at Google is a programme to improve its green credentials by offering all of its employees a free bike to ride to work.
The bikes, manufactured by Raleigh Europe, were offered to around 2,000 Google employees in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “There were two reasons for the bikes: one was wellness and the other was our green policy,” says Hornsey. “We had a day across the whole corporation to look at how we could support green initiatives. We really wanted to tie it into wellness as we tend to give away an awful amount of food in the office,” she laughs.
For the past 18 months, Google has also busied itself around work-life balance, particularly family-friendly policies. So much so that it’s not unusual to walk in to the office and see kids sitting down in the cafeteria, says Hornsey.
Family atmosphere aside, one of the challenges any successful dot-com company has had to face is growth – how to maintain that entrepreneurial spirit while staff numbers expand. Hornsey believes that overcoming its growing pains is the biggest challenge facing HR at Google. “So many companies have started off very innovative, creative and vibrant, but have then failed and become bureaucratic. It’s always a danger when you grow,” she says. “What I am really working at is to make sure we don’t tip that balance. For this company, it is a case of carrying on what we started.”
Scaling up effectively and retaining the culture is an integral part of this. “Scalability is in my backyard. I have watched organisations fail as they scale and the reason they fail is because they do not hire the right people and in the right order. So if we are going to open in the Ukraine, for example, let’s make sure we get a really superb country manager first and then let’s grow that very carefully,” she says.
Interestingly, Hornsey does not see herself as an HR professional. That said, she would strive for having more professionalism in the function. “I genuinely believe that the function needs to be more commercial. I need to be able to sit at the table as an equal,” she says.
HR is a support function
The biggest issue facing the profession, according to Hornsey, is that it continues to try to prove its value, and it is constantly trying to add yet another initiative, or another bit of jargon, to show why it is important. “This function is about making sure line managers know how to deal with people. It is not a glory function it’s a support function. Until this function rests easy with that, it’s going to be in trouble,” she says.
Looking ahead to 2008, Hornsey says that employee development will feature prominently. “The box I would like to tick for next year is doing something really funky and different with career development, because [HR directors] are all battling with this issue,” she says.
“Most companies have around 20% of staff marked out as high potentials. Google has a much greater percentage. In 2008, I really need to crack the intellectual and physical challenge of how you move people and develop their careers,” says Hornsey.
“A lot of people who come to this organisation were probably considered to be in the top 10 high potentials at their previous organisations, but when you come in here and you are the same as everyone else, that can be a bit tricky for your ego. Managing that is really important.”
Again, Hornsey approaches this by turning negatives into positives. “The positives are that suddenly they are around really bright people who are as good as them and that is hugely cool,” Hornsey confesses, using a colloquialism that seems to come naturally in this environment.
Being positive all the time must become tiring though, so how does Hornsey get away from grappling with such issues?
She is a self-confessed workaholic. “I am known as the worst BlackBerry user in the world,” she admits. “I was using an exercise bike on holiday recently because I really wanted to get fit. I wondered how I could keep going on the bike for as long as possible, so I rang someone at work and asked if we could have a one-to-one right then so I could talk and stay on the bike. I love my work,” she declares.
HR may just be a support function, according to Hornsey, but with this kind of energy and dedication underpinning the business, it’s easy to see why Google is such a success.
CV: Liane Hornsey
Google – Jan 2006 – to date
Director, EMEA HR and Staffing
Lastminute.com – 2003 – 2006
Group HR director
Ntl Group – 2001 – 2003
Group HR director
Bertelsmann Music Group – 1994 – 2001
Vice-president HR Europe (1999 – 2001)-
Vice-president HR Central Europe (1997 – 1999)-
HR director UK & Ireland (1994 – 1997)
BT – 1989 – 1994
Group head of change management (1991 – 1994)
District head HR/learning and development/process management(1989 – 1991)
Baxter Healthcare – 1984 – 1989