Life is full of terrible people, and most of us go about our business trying to engage with them as little as possible. But on occasion, you must, because we all make mistakes in work and in friendship and in love. Now you have a terrible ex who remains in your orbit and starts dating others. Now you work with a terrible person who has gossiped about you or ratted you out to the boss, and a new person has just been hired with no idea what’s to come.
Are you obligated to warn the new person about what you know, or do you keep your mouth shut and mind your own business?
As a longtime reader of advice columns, it’s probably the second most commonly asked question I come across (after people writing in about whether or not to remain in sexless marriages). And it goes something like this: Is it “okay” to warn someone about a shitty person?
This is also the subject of two recent questions to The Ethicist at The New York Times in the last month alone. The first one goes like this: “Should the new girlfriend of an awful ex-husband be warned?” The second question is very similar: “Should you ever warn a friend about someone’s possible actions based on the reports of several trustworthy people?”
Though one instance involves someone’s dishonest, drug and alcohol addicted, financially irresponsible ex-husband, and the second one involves a coworker who has a pattern of befriending and then sabotaging other coworkers, they amount to the same question. When you know someone is a scumbag, is there any ethical obligation to tell people — especially new, unsuspecting people — of the potential scumbaggery that a scumbag is headed their way?
The answer is super simple, and super clear: usually never. But absolutely, if you’re prepared to take the fall for being a psychotic revenge seeker. One caveat: I’m talking about situations wherein people can be fucked over by people professionally or romantically, but not situations wherein they will be actually physically harmed or killed. Or as my friend always says, for those scenarios you should be Whoopi in Ghost.
For the rest, here are the different things you should consider before warning someone about a shitty person:
First, identify your motive, and identify it with brutal accountability and honestly, if only to yourself. This almost never happens in the letters people write to advice columnists. In nearly all those letters from people who want very badly to spread the word that someone is an asshole, the letter writer pulls off elaborate mental acrobatics to insist that their motives are pure, ethical and only for the good of the group and never for selfish gain.
No one ever cops to what’s probably more true: I was fucked over by this person, and I want everyone to know they suck, because I don’t want them to get away with it anymore. To be fair, both things can be true. You can have a selfish, understandable motive that also exposes a bad actor for their true nature. What’s more, nothing else will put a stop to it but shaming and ostracization.
It’s just that it’s a brilliantly disguised motive that allows good intentions to act as a cover for revenge. Not wanting other people to be fucked over by a known terrible quantity is not a bad thing, but the inability to acknowledge that your main reason for caring is that you want them to go down, muddies the purity waters.
Do a little legwork before you go spouting off about someone else’s Machiavellian ways. Have they done this to others? Have you gotten this warning from other people yourself about them? Are you operating on confirmed reports of a sustained pattern of rampant abuse, or just your own personal experience and speculation?
As difficult as lesson this is in life, sometimes someone is just awful to you, and great to someone else. Some of my worst boyfriends appear to now be great husbands to other people. I myself have enjoyed a great boyfriend who was someone else’s living nightmare. You may get along just great with the coworker keeping a file of every break, lunchtime, and late arrival of someone else.
Sometimes the truth of your bad dynamic with someone is specific to the way the two of you tango, and it’s not, as much as you might like to believe, a rampant problem that needs warning. It’s just a bad experience you had. That sucks, but don’t turn that into a societal problem it’s your job to announce. Save the town crier move for when you’re really doing a person or a team a solid (even if, again, you do have an ulterior motive — and you probably do.)
The reason it’s crucial to know why you’re warning someone, and that there’s definitely a degree of revenge in it, is because that’s exactly what most people are going to think anyway. No one likes a narc, and if you go around telling people someone is a mole, or a rat, or a narcissist, or a liar, or a sociopath, or a cheat, it could backfire in three major ways. One: they don’t believe you. Two: everyone will think you’re bitter and angry. Three: they tell the person what you said, the person says you’re a crazy liar and turns it all around on you, they bond over it, and you are the one left looking like a crazy problem causer.
You should also calculate how bad the person’s impact is on the situation at hand. Are they causing real, measurable damage to the workplace by being toxic, or are they just an annoying presence who, if eliminated, would only be replaced by another annoyingly low-simmering presence? You have to consider office politics and carefully weigh the consequences to relationships. Mostly, just think of yourself. If the person is as bad as you think, what they will most certainly be is incredibly, ruthlessly vindictive if you expose them. Worth it? If they’re in good with the right people, you’re fucked, even if you’re right.
You should only proceed if you’re willing to accept looking like a crazy, bitter revenge seeker, even if they totally have it coming, and if you’re talking about a coworker, you have a few other jobs lined up.
If you’ve run all this through your cost/benefit analysis, and you still think it’s a good idea to warn someone, tread carefully. If it’s a complete stranger you’re warning about an ex partner or coworker, there’s no way to rat someone out but to directly declare they are in harm’s way. If it’s someone you already know, it might be helpful to approach the matter with a series of questions rather than statements.
“How well do you know so and so?” you might ask. Try to feel out if there’s already some established suspicion, and they’re open to hearing your take. If you feel the need to warn someone about a bad boss in a job they’re taking, experts advise dropping hints about that boss having had a lot of conflict with employees in the past, without necessarily “going on a diatribe.”
You need clear plausible deniability, in case everything blows up. Introduce seeds of doubt rather than make declarative statements. “Mark in accounting is so great!” someone might say over work drinks. “Yeah, totally, and he is really tight with the boss,” you might counter nonchalantly.
The Two Golden Exceptions
In one of the Ethicist questions at the Times, Kwame Anthony Appiah tells the advice-seeker that if the coworker she wants to warn is actually her friend, she should warn her about the coworker notorious for befriending and sabotaging new hires, because by not warning her, she actually risks the valued relationship with her friend. Appiah puts it this way:
Suppose that she was later victimized and came to know that you had contemplated warning her but didn’t. How persuasive would she find your rationale?
In other words, if the damage of not having warned someone appears to you to be greater than warning them, you should warn them.
One other exception is if someone asks you directly what you think of someone else, implying they’re already concerned about a terrible person and have some idea they might be playing with fire. In this case, you have permission to bury them freely. It’s just that this almost never, ever happens in any scenario ever, because most people take fake-nice people at their word (at first), and also need to learn for themselves that someone is a wildebeest.
By now, you’ve realized that once you put the risk of warning someone through these paces, you’ll conclude it’s almost never worth it to out someone else because of the risk to your own reputation and the likelihood of it backfiring. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Karmic retribution has a way of taking care of a lot of terrible people because they end up getting in their own way or exposing themselves through sheer hubris and folly. All you need is a little bit of patience to sit back and watch the inevitable play out. The most satisfying thing ever is when you have no hand in the outcome whatsoever and get to see someone fall on their own sword.