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Google’s Lessons for Federal Workforce Management

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Google’s head of human resources, Laszlo Bock (senior vice president, people operations), has received a lot of media attention for his book, Work Rules!, to be released this month. Hopefully, it will grab the attention of federal managers as well.

It’s safe to say, Google is not like government. But people are people. Government employs more people in computer-related occupations—over 80,000—than Google’s total workforce. Plus there are at least another 500,000 employees in what could be categorized as knowledge occupations.

If federal agencies realized the same level of engagement and performance that has made Google a solidly successful company, the whole country would benefit. But for reasons that are almost unfathomable, government leaders too often make statements that deny employee value or initiate actions that hinder their career prospects.  

Federal leaders, elected as well as appointed, should consider the lessons spelled out in Bock’s book. It starts with the people philosophy behind their work management practices. In Bock’s words:

“You either believe people are fundamentally good or you don’t. If you do believe they’re good, then as an entrepreneur, a team member, a team leader, a manager, or a CEO—or a government leader—you should act in a way consistent with your beliefs. If people are good, then they should be free. Too many organizations and managers operate as if, absent some enlightened diktat, people are too benighted to make sound decisions and innovate.”

Bock does not define what he means by “good,” but the context suggests several words: committed, capable and trustworthy. Equally important is how he would define “not good” along with the implications for how those employees should be managed. Clearly they are not committed and cannot be trusted.

Bock’s point, of course, is that Google trusts its employees to make sound decisions in the best interests of the company. His response to what makes Google special and so successful is, “It’s our people.” Employees are similarly responsible for government’s achievements.

Central to Bock’s beliefs and to Google’s is that employees should be empowered to act. He uses the word “free” frequently. Google wants their employees’ best thinking. When Google was started, its founder had the idea that the company would operate without managers and that people could manage themselves.

As a consultant who has worked with self-managed teams, I agree solidly with this philosophy. Government, in many situations, has employees who operate largely independent of supervision and who need to make quick, practical decisions. But government also has far too many employees who suffer under micromanagers. Those employees almost cry out for more freedom.

Communicating the vision and granting employees the freedom to implement it is one part of Google’s people management system. The other is to minimize the life errands that take time away from work (e.g., taking clothes to a dry cleaner or going out for lunch). In other words, the famous perquisites are provided so employees can focus on work.

Google’s “work rules” are stated throughout the chapters. Several of the rules—like “Choose to think of yourself as a founder”—are unrealistic for government, but a number of others certainly apply:

  • Give people slightly more trust, freedom and authority than you are comfortable giving them. If you’re not nervous, you haven’t given them enough.
  • If you give people freedom, they will amaze you.
  • Give your work meaning.
  • Eliminate status symbols.
  • Find ways for people to shape their work and the company.
  • Make life easier for employees.
  • Find ways to say yes.
  • Admit your mistakes. Be transparent about it.
  • Recognize the difference between what is and what should be.
  • Set goals correctly.
  • Give them peer feedback.
  • Use a calibration process to finalize performance ratings.

These rules are not unique to Google. Descriptions of the best companies to work for reflect similar philosophies. Over the past two decades successful companies have moved away from the traditional hierarchical organization. It now exists only in government—and less successful companies.

Yes, Google pays well and also emphasizes pay for performance. According to their proxy statement, their pay rates are in the 90th percentile, compared with similar companies. That is consistent with their goal of hiring the best. A typical company aims for the 50th percentile.

But pay does not explain Google’s success. There are many successful companies that pay employees at or even below market levels, especially startups where cash is limited.

The civil service system will continue to be a constraint; it places a heavy burden on organizational change initiatives. But a number of these work rules could be implemented tomorrow at no cost. The rules reflect a people management philosophy that could be adopted by every manager. It would be highly advantageous to have leaders at the highest levels make this an organizational priority and hold managers accountable. Everyone would benefit.

Howard Risher managed compensation consulting practices for two national firms and has written four books, including Aligning Pay and Results. He has an MBA and Ph.D. from the Wharton School.

Howard Risher is a consultant focusing on pay and performance. In 1990, he managed the project that led to the passage of the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act and the transition to locality pay. Howard has worked with a variety of federal and state agencies, the United Nations and OECD. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. in business from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of the new book It's Time for High-Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize the Public Sector Workforce (2016), with Bill Wilder.

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