Do We All Have a Duty to Warn?

What is our responsibility to others at work, at home, and in social settings?

Posted Oct 19, 2019

Do you and I have a “duty to warn”? Clinicians, nurses, school administrators, and other professionals are often confronted with this issue or are required by law to do so. But what about the average person?

Perhaps you have been put in a situation in which you debated whether or not it was your duty to warn or perhaps the issue has never crossed your mind. The question is not that easy, but it is one worth pondering should the situation ever arise.

Imagine you are 25 years old. You go to work at a new job, and it is your first professional setting, so you are eager to learn and practice your craft. The CEO is vibrant, even exciting. Would you want to know if they are toxic? I think most people would say yes. Would you want to know if they had the potential to victimize you emotionally, psychologically, physically, or financially? I think the answer is also yes. Would you want to know that in a few months if you continue to work there, you will see behaviors that will make you sick, that will make you anxious, that go against what you believe, that will make you think about quitting, or that are so toxic that you begin to doubt your own value? Would you want to know? Of course, you would. You would want someone to rise up and warn you as early as possible, if not out of duty, then merely out of human concern.

Or how about this: You find a magnificent preacher, a real orator, dynamic, some would say charismatic, who seems to have all the right answers to your questions or issues. You like his message and he has a lot of committed followers, like you, who think and believe similarly. His followers chant and praise him at his rallies and meetings and are willing to embrace everything he says. The gatherings are fabulous, they are everything you have been seeking and everyone there feels the same—united in thought and purpose. You have no doubts about this individual: He makes you feel special because for the first time you feel like someone sees things the way you do and gives you hope. He seems enlightened and you feel he is truly gifted. This preacher seems to have it all—political connections, a vision for the future—and everyone around you agrees. 

Would you in this instance like to know if this person is toxic, though it may not be clear to you? What if they are so malignantly flawed of character that they could victimize you psychologically, emotionally, physically, or financially without you realizing it? Would you want to know? Would you like someone to tell you just how sick this person is and how pathologically damaging they are, even if to you they seem normal? Or would you rather not get the message because you are a dedicated supporter, a true believer: You have put your faith in this individual, you don’t want to hear what others have to say. After all, they may be haters or enemies.

In the instance of a job, you can change jobs. In the other, it is someone you believe in. Does belief in something or someone trump logic or clearly articulated evidence? Even if the warnings come from someone with professional training or experience who may recognize danger more readily than you?

In doing research for my 2014 book, Dangerous Personalities, looked into this phenomenon. I looked at individuals who had been victimized by their bosses and as expected, they all said they wished someone had told them what a “jackass,” “creep,” “narcissistic jerk,” “miserable,” “despicable,” or “utterly untrustworthy, person" the person was. And those were some of the kinder comments. “If someone had told me how awful he was when I first hired on, it would have made a difference,” said Rebecca, a victim I interviewed, who eventually quit her job when she could no longer tolerate the daily berating and obnoxious behavior. She, like so many others, wished someone had told them. Even if they could not have changed jobs immediately, they at least wished someone had been decent enough, caring enough, stalwart enough to warn them.

In the second instance, the preacher, I am describing a follower of the Rev. Jim Jones of The People’s Temple, one who died in Jonestown, Guyana. We know of her through her parents who were helpless to assist. Jones was the charismatic preacher who led his congregation to Jonestown and in time, when he came under scrutiny, convinced more than 900 of them to kill their children and commit suicide by drinking a poison-laced concoction often referred to as Kool-Aid. 

The woman of whom I speak (I will not name her to spare her family) really believed in Jones and the future he promised. Anyone telling her otherwise or criticizing Jones was perceived as an enemy, according to her family. If someone knowledgeable in personality disorders had warned her, would she have left the People’s Temple earlier, while they were still in California, before they moved to the snake- and Dengue fever-infested jungle? Would mere words have mattered to her? Would they have mattered? Should multiple people have warned her? Should they have interceded? Should someone with specialized training or experience have seen the visible behavioral traits and warned about the dangers of such a paranoid malignant narcissis? Her family didn’t know he had these traits; they just felt somehow that it was wrong for her to put so much faith in one man and leave her family behind. They didn’t know Jones was severely flawed of character, and had all the traits both of the malignant narcissist and the paranoid personality.

Do we have a responsibility to warn only when it is work-related and the person is sitting next to us? Or do we have a duty to warn any time we see behaviors consistent with a person so severely flawed of character, who has proven time after time through their behavior that they are toxic, and that others will likely be victimized? Do we warn only when we know the person or when we see the potential danger?

What is our responsibility? In 1979 I was traveling between Yuma, Arizona, and the Parker Indian Reservation. I had pulled over off the road onto a dry riverbed to see why there were so many buzzards circling this spot—probably a dead carcass of some sort, but occasionally someone who perished crossing the desert.

I had walked about 200 yards through the dried-out riverbed when a beat-up truck pulled over next to my vehicle. An old man got out, his skin as brown and as dry as clay baked in the sun. He walked slowly toward me, so I smiled as he kept coming, his eyes in the distance toward the east, his side to side waddle a testament to a hard life and arthritis. He appeared to be from one of the local tribes—Hopi, Chemehuevi or Havasupai, I wasn’t sure. I had only been working in the area for a year, so I still wasn’t adept at picking out the details of decorations on belts and bracelets that identified a tribe.

Finally, when he reached me in a low voice he asked, “Car OK?” as he kept looking into the distance. Before I could answer he said, “You must move your car, soon.” “Why?” I asked, for a moment wondering if I was trespassing on tribal lands. With his chin he pointed to the clouds in the distance toward the east. I looked. There were in fact large black clouds miles away, perhaps more than 20 miles away. “This riverbed will soon flood,” he admonished me. I thanked him and wondered what he knew that I didn’t as he walked back to his truck. I grew up in Miami, so what did I know of the desert southwest? I didn’t brush him off, but at the same time, I wasn’t exactly heeding his advice. After a few minutes I left the area as I had a meeting to go to and I had spotted nothing unusual that was dead. 

On my way back several hours later, at that very spot, traffic was stalled. A car had tried to drive through what was now a very fast-moving river more than hip high and had apparently floated downstream. That dry riverbed was now deep and fast moving with mud and rocks from miles away. No one was going to cross the riverbed that day. That old man, wiser and more experienced, took the time to warn me. I all but ignored him. Luck, plus a busy schedule, had spared me.

I think of this incident often when I think about leadership, about caring, about our duty to each other, about our duty to warn others when we know just a little bit more. Experience had taught the old man that dry riverbeds soon become dangerous fast-moving rivers of water and debris even when it rains miles away. I often wonder what if I had stayed.

What is our duty to warn? I know what mine is. Do you know your responsibility? Is it based on circumstance? Is it only a duty to friends? Does your profession put a yoke around you to keep you from warning others about what is self-evident to you? Will you be seen as not loyal, not a team player? At work, it is OK to warn others, but not when it involves religious or political leaders? What about the person someone is dating, or marrying, or is being chosen to lead a group of children? Is our responsibility to each other tethered the minute someone cloaks it in their strong beliefs in someone or something?

If ethics is about “what is befitting another human being,” then duty to warn is not mere rhetoric. It is a responsibility.


Navarro, Joe with Toni Sciarra Poynter. 2014. Dangerous Personalities. New York: Rodale.