Group Process: Is it Ethical?

Denise L. Davidson

For most of my career in student affairs—housing and residence life, in particular – the components of student staff selection have included a written application and at least one individual interview. The written application might have included a basic information form (name, class standing, contact information), a resume, and written responses to several job-related questions. The individual interview involved the candidate and one or more interviewers. Sometimes the questions were proscribed and at other institutions, the questions were constructed by the interviewers. These two elements are common regardless of position level (student, graduate student, professional, faculty member) and industry (higher ed, business, social services).

Several institutions also included a “group process” as part of their paraprofessional/student leader (e.g., RA, Orientation Leader) selection system. Not to be confused with a group interview (several candidates interviewed in the same space and time by one or more interviewers), a group process involves several candidates being observed (and evaluated) while engaging a group tasks without a specified leader. From my experience and explorations, group tasks range from collectively choosing RA candidates from written information and logic puzzles or challenges to building the tallest structure from straws and plastic cups and devising an educational program theme. The objective is often to use the observations as part of the selection decision-making process. 

For quite a while, I have pondered the role of group process, whether observations of candidates in a group setting are valid or reliable, if it is a good use of human resources, and if group process is ethical. These questions don’t mean I am opposed to group process; in fact, there are other ways of looking at group process and what it reveals about candidates. Some departments use the information when assigning hired RAs/OLs to staff or team combinations. Others structure the group tasks so they are directly tied to position responsibilities, which may aid candidates in better understanding the desired position. And yet…I question and ponder and wonder.

I believe there is great value to being challenged to think carefully about effective, ethical, and valid ways of gathering information to make informed and useful selection decisions. The five ethical principles espoused by Kitchner (1985) (i.e., respecting autonomy, doing no harm, benefiting, others, being just, and being faithful) provide a useful frame for evaluating group process. We will apply Kitchner’s five ethical principles to the group process approach, analyze the advantages and disadvantages of group process, and facilitate participants’ examination of their RA/student leader selection process for alignment with Kitchner’s principles. I hope you will join me for a dynamic—and perhaps controversial—examination of group process.

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