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BHO0255 The Psychology of Work & Organisations

Assessment Two Case Study 

Working for Google: ‘Doing cool things that matter’

Case study taken from:

Sutton, A. (2014). Work psychology in action. Palgrave Macmillan.

Google is one of the most well-known brands in the world. Starting with the development of a search engine so effective that ‘to Google’ became synonymous with searching the web, the organisation has expanded to include a wide range of products and offerings, including the Chrome web browser, Gmail, Google maps and YouTube. To keep the company at the forefront of the industry, Google is looking for employees who are ‘great at lots of things, love big challenges and welcome big changes’ and will be beneficial to the organisation in the long term. How do they go about finding these people?

The company used to be famous for using brainteaser-type questions during interviews, asking candidates to solve puzzles like ‘How many golf balls will fit in a bus?’ or ‘How much would you charge to clean all the windows in Seattle?’ The idea was that asking this kind of question would help them to identify people who could think on their feet and come up with creative solutions while also giving the interviewers an insight into the candidate’s problem-solving process. But these types of question have become a thing of the past as the recruitment and selection processes at Google have changed over the years.

Managing information and data is an essential component of what Google does, so it is no surprise that the change in selection processes was triggered when they analysed the data they had on people’s performance at interview and their subsequent performance in the job. The results came as a shock: the company found that the brainteaser questions were completely unrelated to the people’s subsequent job performance (Bryant, 2013). As Laszlo Bock (Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google) pointed out, those questions only served to make the interviewer feel smart! He also stated that structured behaviour interviews are the only ones that work; and this is the direction that google selection processes have moved in more recently.

Besides trying to get a handle on how people approach problems, the other important criterion that Google used to use in selection was a candidate’s grade point average from university. But again, their data crunching indicated that this was unrelated to actual job performance (Bryant, 2013), and so this criterion has become less important in the selection processes. In fact, the company now has an increasing proportion of employees who have never been to university, recognising that the skills they are looking for are not necessarily developed in formal education.

Having gone through these changes, the basic selection process at Google currently has three stages (Google, 2014b). First, a potential candidate has a conversation with a recruiter. The majority of these recruiters start on six-month contracts (though may stay longer) and the number can be increased or reduced depending on the organisation’s needs (VanderMey, 2012). Their main function is the find people who might be interested in working for Google and a lot of their work involves cold-calling potential candidates and then guiding candidates through the process.

This initial contact is followed up by a phone interview and then on-site interviews with around four or five people. The interviewers could be potential new teammates or supervisors, or they could be people the candidates might never see again. They assess candidates on four main criteria:

  • Leadership
  • Role-related knowledge (looking for a variety of knowledge, not just specialist knowledge)
  • Problem-solving skills
  • ‘Googleyness’, which includes a candidate’s comfort with ambiguity, bias towards actions and collaborative nature

Interestingly, while Google promotes a ‘scientific’ approach to evaluating the first three criteria, Sunil Chandra (Vice President of Staffing and Operations) claims that determining this last point is more ‘art’ than science (Halzack, 2013).

The final decision about hiring is made in the light of feedback from all the interviews, by people not involved in the interview. Google considers this to be a more objective approach than leaving it to the interviewers (Halzack, 2013). By having the decision made at some distance from the interview, Google is attempting to remove some of the biases that can occur.

The first attribute that is assessed in Google’s selection process is leadership. The highly skilled and technically competent staff traditionally seemed to think that the best thing a manager could do was to leave them in peace to let them get on with their jobs (Bryant, 2011). In fact, in 2002 Google even conducted a brief experiment and eliminated all the engineering management roles (Garvin, 2013). The experiment only lasted a few months before the company realised that, instead of encouraging ideas and productivity among staff, removing the managers meant that the founders themselves were continually approached to resolve conflicts and deal with routine, everyday matters. The management positions were reintroduced, although today Google still remains a reasonably flat organisation, with employees given decision-making power and freedom to innovate.

In their continuing quest to identify good leadership within the company, in 2009, Google launched ‘Project Oxygen’. This project was a data-mining exercise that reviewed employee surveys, management feedback reports and performance reviews in an effort to find out what characterised a good leader at Google. The project was launched because the company realised that the best managers had the best-performing, happiest teams with the highest retention rates. Project Oxygen’s final list of good behaviours, in order of importance, were (Bryant, 2011):

  1. Be a good coach
  2. Empower your team and don’t micromanage
  3. Express interest in team members’ success and personal well-being
  4. Don’t be a sissy: be productive and results-orientated
  5. Be a good communicator and listen to your team
  6. Help your employees with career development
  7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team
  8. Have key technical skills so that you can advise the team

The interplay between good leadership and effective teamwork is recognised at Google, where collaboration is central to everything they do. The company believes that innovation comes through sharing ideas and working together, and the ability to collaborate to solve problems is an essential ingredient in the ‘Googleyness’ that they look for in new hires. This extends even to their Googlers- to-Googlers (g2g) education programme, where employees teach each other new skills and knowledge. In fact, this ‘Googleyness’ is a concept that emerges again and again when employees talk about the company, a shorthand for the culture of the organisation. Laszlo Bock (Bock, 2011) describes this culture as being created and maintained by three important components:

  • Mission – Google is clear about its mission: to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Since this is the driving force behind their efforts, employees get a feeling of meaning to their work and are passionate about their ultimate aim.
  • Transparency – The senior executives at Google hold weekly meetings where employees can directly ask them questions. Information about the company, including progress reports, project timelines and team goals are all held on the company intranet for all employees to access. The concept is that their employees can be trusted and that open communication is vital.
  • Voice – There are many ways for Google employees to express their thoughts, opinions and ideas, including surveys, direct emails to the leaders and so on. Feedback is actively sought from every manager’s direct reports and used to recognise the best and coach the worst.

In fact, Google has topped Fortune’s ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ list since 2012. Employees say they are proud to work there and 97% say their management is honest and ethical. They also value the company’s approach to giving back to the community and supporting charities: for example, Google donates $50 for every five hours of volunteering that an employee does with an approved charity.

One of the reasons people are so keen to work at Google is the legendary list of perks that Googlers get. On their main site, ‘Googleplex’ in California, employees can enjoy free meals at the cafeterias, snacks and drinks near their offices, free use of the gym, game rooms and on-site medical staff. There are similar facilities in the London office too, with a games room, music room and a ‘coffee lab’ to help people to relax and go back to work refreshed without ever leaving the office. There is also travel insurance for employees and their families and reimbursement for training courses. Perhaps the most famous perk is Google’s ’20 percent time’ where employees can work on something unrelated to their official work projects for one day a week.

Why does Google spend so much on these benefits? One reason that the company gives is that they value their employees and want to make their lives better: the benefits are designed to take care of their employees, physically, mentally, emotionally, financially and socially (Google, 2014a). More cynical commentators have suggested that there may be two other reasons. First, by ensuring that employees have everything they need at work, Google can encourage a long hours culture – 10 to 12 hours a day is not uncommon. Second, some have suggested that spending money on these perks is actually cheaper than increasing wages.

And there’s a darker side to Google’s retention efforts too. It has recently come to light that the CEOs of Google and other tech firms like Apple had anti-poaching agreements in place with each other, as well as agreeing on salary levels (Harkinson, 2014). There agreements were so strongly enforced that, in 2007, a Google recruiter who approached an Apple employee was immediately dismissed. These illegal arrangements are currently the subject of a class action lawsuit in the USA which alleges that employees were financially damaged because they simply did not have anywhere else to go that would offer them a better deal.

Despite all these efforts at retention, however, a recent report by PayScale compared retention rates at Fortune 500 companies and revealed that median tenure at Google was just over one year (PayScale Inc., 2013). Whilst this needs to be understood in the context of the typical worker only staying with a Fortune 500 company for 3.6 years overall, Google still had the third lowest job tenure and, significantly, it was also lower than other comparable tech companies such as Yahoo and Microsoft. And this is despite Google employees having the fourth highest median salary. Some have suggested that the reason for this low tenure rate might link back to an inefficient hiring process (Lewis, 2013) that results in too many false positives.

You are expected to use APA guidelines – 6th edition for your academic writing, in text citations and your reference list.

  1. Introduce the reader to the relevant psychological literature (Measuring Talent, Identifying Talent and Retaining Talent).
  2. Based on the provided case study outline the problems or issues faced by Google prior to taking action as well as the strategy taken to address these issues.
  3. Does evidence suggest that the issues were effectively addressed? Why or why not?
  4. Based on your critical evaluation, and in consultation with the literature, would you recommend any further action for the organisation to take in relation to these issues? Explain.
  5. Would you expect any potential benefits or drawbacks as a result of your recommendations?
  6. Would you expect these recommendations to be effective in other organisations? Why or why not?


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