Everyday Ethics: The Dilemma of the Tardy Warning

Not for the first time in my life, the Dilemma of the Tardy Warning is causing me sleepless nights.

By random chance I encountered a gentleman who worked in my field, and we had a phone conversation. He was pleasant and flattering; his projects sounded both interesting and like possible complements to my own. We exchanged e-mails, and he sent me some materials. I said that I would contact him to set up a face-to-face meeting, and meant it.

Then I casually mentioned him to some colleagues, who reacted as if I had announced a planned liaison with the Marquis de Sade. “He’s nuts!” one told me. “He’ll be nothing but trouble,” predicted another. It seems my pleasant acquaintance has a widespread reputation for unpredictability, temper tantrums, erratic behavior and unprofessional conduct.

“Change your e-mail address if you have to,” a friend who had worked with him advised me. “Move if you have to. Run!”

What should I do? I trust the judgment of my friends, and they seemed genuinely concerned about my welfare if I got involved with the new contact, who I know not at all. Yet I also trust my own instincts, which usually serve me well, and they had told me that there was some promise in this relationship. I also made, if not a legally enforceable promise, a commitment to set up a meeting.

If I set up a meeting with him as I said I would, it cannot be just to fulfill the commitment knowing that I have already decided, based on my friends’ warnings, to “run.” That would be misleading and unfair to him. Yes, I can bring up the various horror stories at the meeting and question him about them, but to what end? That course would likely poison any possibility of a joint venture, and what how is he likely to respond? “Yes, it’s true; I’m a bounder!” Unlikely.

And yet, I have sometimes found that good people manage to acquire bad reputations. Each new relationship is undermined at the start by rumors and judgments from others, well-meaning and sincere though they may be. On occasion, I find that a supposed pariah is brilliant and helpful, once he (or she) is given a chance, a pass on some eccentricities, and the sense that he can be trusted.

The majority of the time, however, the stories are accurate. The ones I have just heard are worse than most, and I don’t have the time or professional margin for error to get involved with a nut. There is no question about it: if I had heard the same cautionary tales and warnings before encountering this individual, I would never have agreed to a meeting.

It is one of those times, I fear, that it is hell being an ethicist. The Golden Rule is in play, and there is no getting around it. If I were in the position of my new acquaintance, I would want the chance to start with a clean slate.  At this point there is no way of knowing that the dire predictions of my trusted friends will come true. There should be consequences of bad behavior, but stories about bad behavior often become exaggerated and distorted. I have only heard one side of some bad experiences, and I have been involved in some conflicts myself that would make me look pretty bad if the official version was penned by my adversaries.

I think the fair and ethical course is to give this stranger the benefit of the doubt: go through with the meeting, be wary but open-minded, and raise the concerns of my friends if it naturally flows from the conversation.

And hope against hope that I don’t regret it.

What would you do?

4 thoughts on “Everyday Ethics: The Dilemma of the Tardy Warning

  1. Assuming that a thorough Web search reveals nothing of particular interest, I’d be flexible in my definition of “meeting”. Arrange to have coffee and pastries one morning in a public place as a “toe in the water”. If the bad reputation is unjustified, the other party should offer no objection (maybe he’s heard some stories about you!), and you can learn a lot face to fact than you can’t learn by phone. Ask in particular, without offering details, about his experiences with his detractors, and see what he has to say.

    If his response to the coffee suggestion is “No, let’s meet in the cemetery at 11:45 p.m., and bring your halberd” — well, there’s your answer.

  2. I think you’ve chosen the correct path. Some people, (and these might be your friends), try to unfriend others using subtleties. Unfortunately, some subtleties are easily lost on certain individuals, and perhaps this gentleman is fairly thick.

    My advice is to continue on your path, but don’t mince words and be honest, open, and forthright in all interactions. Besides, maybe he knows his reputation too and has resolved to turn a new leaf with his engagement with you.

  3. I think you are 100% right to give him the benefit of the doubt. You agreed to meet with him, not “marry” him (professionally speaking, of course), and I think you should be honest with him about what you have been told.

    But your commitment to meet him, absent clear evidence of some kind of intended duplicity on his part or force majeure, carries the weight of an ethical imperative, in my opinion. I doubt that you agreed to do more than just meet, and meeting with someone is such a tiny thing (unless, of course, it carries the burden of non-ethical considerations like high monetary cost and serious inconvenience).

    Then, you have to make a judgment based on your impressions of the meeting and his responses to the negative perception of others. I also think that you should ask him if he were aware that he had such a poor reputation. His answer to that one will surely be instructive.

    I wish you nothing but wisdom, and success.

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