The group process interview…

8 minute read

October 16, 2023, 9:30 AM

Recently, while I was alone with my thoughts while operating the train, I recalled the weirdest job interview that I ever had.  That was the “group process” day that the Office of Residence Life at JMU did as part of their selection process for new resident advisors, at least back when I went through in the early 2000s.  You spent most of the day in Taylor Hall with the Residence Life people, doing various activities with your fellow candidates so that the hall directors could see how well you worked as a team.  The sense that I got was that it was well-intentioned, but it was a bit misguided, because the dynamic was quite different from what one would experience in real life, and thus the utility was quite limited.

The way that it worked was that they put everyone in groups of about five people, and those were the people that you would be working with throughout the day.  Then they rotated you through a number of different rooms, where they had different scenarios for you to work through as a group.  I don’t remember all of them, but one of the situations that they put us in was where we had to get everyone from point A to point B across what was supposed to be a dangerous moat or something.  One person was not allowed to see, I believe, and another person was not allowed to speak.  I was the no-speak person in that exercise, which was a challenge for me, but we all made it across successfully.

At the end of the day, you were asked to do an evaluation of how the group process interview went, as well as an evaluation of your own performance in their interview.  Then the group process interview was followed by two conventional one-on-one interviews at a later date.  One interview was with one of the next year’s hall directors, i.e. the people who would ultimately be selecting the RAs, and the other was with a member of the full-time staff, such as an area coordinator (i.e. the hall directors’ bosses).  Those were pretty straightforward, being your typical job interview, where the interviewer asks you to share times when different things happened in your life and/or career, and find out how you handled them.

I totally got where they were coming from with the whole event, i.e. resident advisors have to be able to work successfully in a group, as these little hall staffs worked as teams of various sizes.  However, I suspect that a few key differences prevented the group process interview from being an accurate gauge of what people would really be like working with others in the actual job.  For one thing, these scenarios that we were put into were highly contrived and unrealistic.  I don’t know who has to cross a dangerous moat on a regular basis in real life, but it certainly wasn’t going to be me, and especially not for the $405 per month that they were offering (the total compensation for the entire job was $3,645, i.e. it paid peanuts).

There was also no sense of investment with the people that we were working with.  The people that we were working with were folks whom we largely did not know, and it was quite possible that after the event, we would not see these people again.  It was a one-day thing, while in the real job, you were spending nine months of your life living in close proximity with your fellow RAs, and relying on them for a lot of things.  You also got to learn their strengths and weaknesses, and form relationships.  You were invested in your fellow RAs, because you relied on them and they relied on you, and their success was your success (at least until your hall director would take all of the credit), and you knew that you were more or less married to these people for those nine months, because mid-year hall staff changes were fairly rare.

The whole group process day also really messed with my head in a major way.  The task was to perform in front of the next year’s hall directors, with the goal of getting a job as an RA.  The specific criteria that we had to meet was not given, and we were told to just do our best.  I was determined to give them what they wanted in order to get hired, and was constantly monitoring my own performance to see if I was meeting that.  I actually went through this process twice.  Once during my freshman year in 2000, when I did not get the position, and again during my sophomore year in 2001, when I did ultimately get the job.  That first year, I was technically waitlisted, i.e. I was considered fully qualified for the position, but I just didn’t make the cut, but if they had any openings come up, they might seek me out, which never happened (though a friend of mine did get in that way over the summer).  The first time around, I felt like I was a bit too passive during the group process day, and I felt like that may have cost me the role.  So in the second go-round, I deliberately stepped things up a bit in order to compensate for that passivity.  One hall director told me later that they saw that and were like, “Whoa,” in a surprised way, but once I explained that I was trying to make up for what I had considered a shortcoming in the previous year’s event, it made more sense, because I had self-evaluated my performance and adjusted accordingly, because clearly, the way that I had played it the first time around didn’t win me the prize.  In other words, what you saw wasn’t the real me by any means.  I was acting, akin to auditioning for a role, in order to get the job.  I was determined to put on a good show for them, and give them what they wanted to see to the best of my ability.

Another way that this messed with my head was the way that I viewed the people that I was tasked with collaborating with, i.e. my fellow candidates.  There were a limited number of RA positions, and these people were vying for the same positions that I was.  So these people were both my teammates for the day… and also the enemy.  There was something to be said about having to collaborate with these people while simultaneously recognizing that you had to outperform them in order to beat them out for the available spots.  Kind of like, I am helping you because I am obligated to, but understand that we are not friends, and I would kill you in an instant if it would improve my chances of getting this job.  I did not like the mental state that such a situation put me in, and I developed a great appreciation for why most companies don’t do things where candidates competing for the same job interact with each other.  The only time where candidates should ever meet each other in a formal capacity during recruitment and selection activities are when there are enough spots for everyone, and you are competing against objective standards for hiring and not other people, i.e. as long as you meet all of the qualifications, you’re in.  The transit agencies that I interviewed with back in 2014 did this, having group sessions to determine who is qualified and who isn’t.  In those environments, everyone was vying for the same job, but there was room for everyone that was qualified.  No one looked at their neighbor and viewed them as the enemy because everyone there wanted to see everyone else in a uniform at the end of the process, and so no one was trying to one-up anyone, because they weren’t in competition with each other.

Then at the end of the day there was the evaluation, where we were given a paper with some questions printed on it, and we were asked to evaluate what we thought of the day’s activities and what we thought about our performance in it.  No one ever specified where this paper would go and who would see it.  Would it go with our other interview data and be part of what the hall directors saw when they were selecting their staffs?  Would it only be seen by the full-time staff for program evaluation purposes, and would our names still be attached to them?  If we wrote comments that would effectively invalidate our entire performance that day on the evaluation form, like I wanted to do (i.e. this performance today was not my authentic self, so please disregard all of it), would that help our candidacy or harm it?  Would being brutally honest that the group process interview was awful help us or hurt us?  There were lots of unanswered questions, but it felt untoward to pose those questions at the time.  Not having answers to those questions meant that I had to continue the charade throughout the evaluation, because I didn’t know where this evaluation would go, nor did I know how they would affect my standing amongst the people whose job it was to select the RAs.  In other words, my evaluation of the whole situation was absolutely a lie, as I said exactly what they wanted to hear, i.e. I was kissing a little butt to get where I was trying to go.

Fortunately, once you were already in as an RA, you didn’t have to go through the group activity again if you were going to continue for a second year.  If I recall, for returning RAs, we did a questionnaire about what we wanted in a building and where we wanted to end up, and we met with one of the area coordinators.  It was all quite relaxed, since we were already inside, and we could share stories about our experience thus far.  Additionally, the only way that they wouldn’t place a returning RA for the following year was if their performance had been really bad.  Plus the hall directors didn’t place returning RAs.  They were assigned to their buildings by the full-time staff, which I appreciated,  In being placed by the full-time staff, it felt like the grown-ups were placing us, with the idea that they knew a thing or two more than the hall directors.  I never liked the idea that the hall directors hired their own staffs.  Especially so now, looking back at the age of 42, my now being twice as old as I was back then, I have come to realize that those hall directors were practically babies, and most people that age aren’t experienced enough to do that well, and I had no reason to think that these hall directors – particularly the undergraduate ones – would be any different.  In other words, it felt like kids hiring other kids, which brought up memories of those times when we had to pick teams as kids, and the teacher would pick two kids who then went back and forth choosing the other kids for their teams.  I was always the last one chosen for a team.  This worked out the same way, as, true to form, my file ended up on the cutting room floor both times.  I was hired when I applied in my sophomore year only after a previous RA’s offer had fallen through, i.e. I was not their first choice.  That gave me something of an inferiority complex that year, because I knew that, unlike my fellow RAs, who were hired right out of the gate, in a perfect world, I should not have been there at all.  I would have been far more comfortable if the full-time staff was the entity placing all RAs in buildings, because then placement would have been done with more of a big-picture view by more experienced people.  I felt like it would have been a lot fairer to do it that way rather than having a bunch of inexperienced people making these hiring decisions.  It also would have meant fewer people to have to please to get a spot, and no opportunities for hall directors to simply hire their friends.  In other words, no, I did not trust the hall directors’ judgment.

Then during my junior year, all of us as RAs had to assist the department with preparations for the next year, either with RA recruitment or with room assignment.  Since I wanted nothing to do with the group process interview ever again, I opted to work room assignment duty, and as such, I spent an afternoon in Huffman Hall helping people choose their rooms for 2002-2003.  That worked out well for me, since it allowed me to take something of a “technician” role placing bodies in rooms, and I got to sleep in on group process day, i.e. the hell with all of that.  Meanwhile, in 2003, Residence Life decided not to have the group process interview day, and I remember laughing inside when our hall director, Mecca Marsh, was venting about that decision by the management in front of us.  If she wanted sympathy from me about that, she wasn’t going to get it, because I was happy that it was discontinued, even though it didn’t affect me in any way, since I wasn’t coming back the following year (for that matter, neither was Mecca, so I don’t understand why she was so upset about that, since it wouldn’t affect her, either).

In any event, I’m glad that I don’t have to go through that routine ever again.  It was needlessly stressful, and I didn’t like what it did to me as far as how I handled myself and how I viewed the other people.

Categories: JMU, Work