Sometimes our work as evaluators, whether measuring theimpact of a corporation’s leadership training program or measuring the results of a program to keep teenagers in school, can negatively affect the welfare of participants. Several years ago I was evaluating the business impact of a leadership development program in which senior managers in an IT organization were loaned to nonprofit organizations for approximately 18 months. After conducting follow-up interviews with each of the participating leaders, writing case-studies about each of their experiences, and showing these stories to my client (participants knew I would be doing this), she asked me to omit a quote by one of the participants because it might have offended a named executive and jeopardize the respondent’s career. I agreed to make the change. Was this ethical?
In many education and health care organizations, collecting and using data from human subjects is regulated by an Institutional Review Board (IRB) convened for the purpose of protecting research and evaluation participants from violations of their rights. However, in many data-gathering situations, there is no IRB and the effect on people’s welfare is not clear cut. Evaluators and stakeholders have to use their own best judgment about right and wrong.
To prepare her evaluation students for these kinds of difficult ethical decisions, Kathleen D. Kelsey, professor at Oklahoma State University, uses film. She uses the film, Capote, to show what one journalist did that was in violation of the ethical principles of the American Evaluation Association. She writes:
At the conclusion of the film, Capote notes that his life was “changed forever” as a result of writing the book, In Cold Blood. I ask students to hypothesize why they think his research project changed Capote’s life forever, stimulating critical thinking about the many implications of our work as evaluators, such as our use of power, our position in the research site, and balancing these roles with conducting high quality evaluation.
Professor Kelsey realizes that often with ethical issues there are no absolutes. She asks her students to think critically about Truman Capote’s behavior in the movie and how that relates to their work as evaluators. This is the kind of conversation that anyone who collects evaluative data from people should be having frequently. This goes for evaluators, management consultants, survey research companies, and internal HR, learning and development, and OD professionals. We all need to consider how our surveys, interviews, and focus groups effect the welfare of participants. Maybe we should be taking Professor Kelsey’s class.