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Suite Talk: Sajith Sivanandan, regional MD of Google

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Sticking to tried and true practices does not work anymore. That’s why Google has done away with traditional performance systems, explains Sajith Sivanandan, MD of Google Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines and emerging markets.

Q. There’s growing emphasis on diversity in the workplace versus traditional drivers like technology and productivity, especially in the tech sector. What is Google’s take on this?

While it’s true that technology has been the driver for change in the workplace for the last few decades, it is perhaps unsurprisingly *not* just technology and its promises that will largely impact the future of work. We believe the additional key to achieving the next level is workplace diversity.

You may have heard about some of the work we already have in place in the United States: embedding engineers at minority colleges and universities; partnering with Hollywood to inspire girls to pursue careers in computer science; building initiatives to introduce coding to students from diverse communities; and expanding our employee unconscious bias training.

But these programmes represent only a sampling of the work going on behind the scenes. Google’s core mission is to increase access to information, and our goal for diversity is a natural extension of this mission – to increase access to opportunity by breaking down barriers and empowering people through technology. Products will only get better and more useful if we invite all segments of society, and people from all over the world, to influence and create technology.

Q. What’s Google’s long-term strategy to achieve diversity?

Our diversity strategy is focused on four key areas that can be broken into two parts – (1) things we’re doing to enhance diversity at Google and (2) things we’re doing to increase opportunities to participate in and contribute to technology more broadly.

  • Hire more diverse Googlers. Hiring is the single most important people priority. In the past, our university-focused hiring programmes relied heavily on a relatively small number of schools. But, we know those schools aren’t always the most diverse. This year, a larger percent of the hires we make from a university are from new campuses.
  • Foster a fair and inclusive culture. We want to ensure that we have an environment where all Googlers can thrive and flourish. We’ve raised awareness around unconscious bias – nearly all Googlers have participated in our unconscious bias workshops – and we’ve now rolled out a hands-on workshop that provides practical tips for addressing bias when we see it.
  • Draw on the idea of 20% time to enable employees to use their time at work to focus on diversity projects. This year more than 500 Googlers globally participated in a formal programme in which employees contribute – as part of their job – to the company’s diversity efforts.
  • Expand the pool of technologists. Making computer science (CS) education accessible and available to everyone is one of our most important initiatives. Our CS First programme is designed to help anyone – a teacher, a coach, or volunteer – teach kids the basics of coding. And since research tells us that to inspire more girls, we need to show them that computer science isn’t just for boys, we started Made with Code – and we’re working with the entertainment industry to change the perceptions around CS and what it means to be a computer scientist. So far, the programme has engaged more than 22,000 students in 1,500 unique programmes, facilitated by 1,500+ community volunteers including in Malaysia.
  • Bridge the digital divide. Our efforts here are about using Google tools and resources to drive economic impact in diverse communities– from helping small-medium businesses leverage our tools to get online and grow, to being mindful about considering small and diverse vendors when we’re buying goods and services that keep Google running. By bridging the divide, we also want more underrepresented communities, including women to share the benefits of the web, and to have access to the economic engine it provides.

Q. How does Google quantify success when it comes to diversity?

Firstly, we believe that a diversity of perspectives, ideas, and backgrounds leads to the creation of better products and services. More broadly, research has shown that diverse teams come up with better and more creative answers to difficult problems. If we tap the full range of human experience, capability and contribution, we move faster, we increase innovation and creativity, we advance knowledge and can tackle more of the world’s problems.

Early indications show promise across our four key areas. For instance, the places where we know we need to improve are women in tech minorities across the organisation. And we’re growing these populations faster than Google is growing.

In the past, our university-focused hiring programmes relied heavily on a relatively small number of schools. This year, a larger percent of our university hires are from new campuses.

With an organisation of our size, meaningful change will take time. From one year to the next, bit by bit, our progress will inch forward. More importantly, the technology industry will become more inclusive, and the opportunities for currently underrepresented groups will grow.

Q. Has Google come up with a different set of yardstick to gauge employee performance?

Sticking to tried and true practices does not always work. We did away with traditional systems because they’ve become substitutes for actually managing people. Performance management has become a rule-based, bureaucratic process. Employees hate it. Managers hate it. Even HR hates it.

Instead, we believe performance can be improved by a shift towards focusing on personal goals rather than perceived growth and formal ratings. This means setting goals correctly, gathering peer feedback, using a calibration process to finalise ratings and splitting reward conversations from development conversations.

Q. Aside from diversity, what else do you see as the future of work?

The future of work lies in the rules we’re practicing today. When it comes to hiring, for example, we believe in finding the right people, even if it takes longer than we’d like. Our golden rule of hiring is to hire people who are better than ourselves in some meaningful way.

We take hiring decisions out of the hands of the manager who needs the headcount – they’re more likely to settle. Instead, we hire every candidate by committee, and every hire has a final review from our CEO.

The future of work, however, ultimately depends on how you look at your work, and how you treat those working with you. Think of your work as a calling, with a mission that matters. Give people slightly more trust, freedom and authority than you’re naturally comfortable giving them. If you’re not nervous, you haven’t given them enough. If you give people freedom, they will amaze you.

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