Why should you never publicly criticize people that you work with?
Conventional wisdom states that you should never badmouth your former boss at a job interview.
You probably intuitively understand why, but just for fun, let’s break down the economic model more explicitly.
In 1970, George Akerlof, the Nobel prize winning economist (and husband to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen), wrote a famous paper entitled The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism.
The model describes how a market works in the presence of what economists call “asymmetric information”, where the seller knows more than the buyer or vice versa. He describes a model of the used car market, where there are two types of cars: good used cars and lemons. (In America, “lemon” is slang for a defective car.) Sellers know which is which, but buyers have no idea.
Buyers demand to pay a discount to compensate for the risk of taking on a lemon. Sellers with good cars refuse to sell at a discount and prefer to keep driving them instead of trading them in, which increases the proportion of lemons in the used car market, and so on until one is left with a very small used car market with a lot of lemons.
(The paper is very short and is worth reading in its entirety; he goes into other examples, such as health insurance for the elderly, employment discrimination against minorities, and credit markets in developing countries, and discusses institutions that seek to resolve information asymmetry, such as chain stores and licensing bodies.)
Employers also seek to avoid lemons, and they too must contend with imperfect information.
Here we can add a twist to Akerlof’s model, which is that the seller sometimes also has imperfect information. One formulation comes from the television show Justified:
“If you run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. If you run into assholes all day, you're the asshole.”
Another formulation goes to the effect of, “If it smells like shit everywhere you go, check the bottom of your shoe.”
Either way, the point is that human nature dictates that lemons do not believe that they are the lemon. From the point of view of a lemon, it is actually everyone else that is a lemon.1
Therefore when a prospective employee says “My former boss was an asshole”, the prospective employer only hears, “My last workplace smelled like lemons”.
The prospective employer knows that many bosses are lemons, but they also know that most lemons will report that their former boss was a lemon. If you badmouth your former boss to a prospective employer, the prospective employer has learned that you are now more likely to be a lemon. After all, you just said the exact thing a lemon would say.
Maybe you know for sure that your boss was a lemon; maybe he collected severed human fingers and rarely showed up for work. That does not matter in this model. All that matters in this model is that the prospective employer has no way to verify whether your boss was a lemon, and that lemons frequently report being surrounded by lemons.
Admittedly, this simple model is an incomplete explanation of why you should not badmouth a former employer. As the initial article explains, complaining about your last employer in an interview demonstrates a lack of familiarity with basic social norms, which for most roles also signals that you might be a lemon!
Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article about the apparent phenomenon of “ghosting” among new hires, which included quotes like this:
Home-cleaning business Duster & Daisy Green Clean Service in Corpus Christi, Texas, has been trying to hire another five cleaners. But getting new recruits to show up even for a few paid training sessions has been a struggle, said manager Sunny Zhang.
Sometimes job seekers sign on and almost immediately stop answering text messages about where to go for training. Others show up for one or two shifts, then disappear without picking up their paychecks. About 80% of new hires eventually disappear without notice, Ms. Zhang said.
About two months ago, after it happened again, she reached a breaking point. “I was so mad,” she said. She updated the company’s online job listings to say: “Please apply if you are a serious JOB SEEKER. No job ghosting.” Even that, she said, hasn’t helped.
Before, we only considered the desire of employers to avoid lemon employees in the face of imperfect information, but it is equally true that employees want to avoid lemon employers. Furthermore, potential customers, suppliers, and investors will all want to avoid getting involved with lemon companies. It is not only employees who need to watch what they say.
We know from our prior example that saying “lots of employees are ghosting me” translates to the reader as “it smells like lemon everywhere I go”. Why are so many employees ghosting them? If it is the employees that are the problem, why isn’t every employer struggling with this? Is this employer really bad at hiring? Is the company poorly managed? Is the pay terrible?
There are two additional differences to consider in this role reversal:
Employers usually have more choice than employees in selecting whom to work with; hiring a bunch of lemons reflects poorly on the employer’s judgment, whereas the employee probably had less choice when accepting a job.
Our employee only smelled a lemon once, whereas this employer is smelling lemons repeatedly. One lemon is probably bad luck, but what are the odds someone independently runs into a dozen lemons?
If it is poor judgment for an employee to privately tell one potential employer about one bad experience with a former employer, then it is borderline insane for an employer to talk about their many bad experiences with former employees IN THE WALL STREET JOURNAL.
This is a particularly egregious example, but it underlines an increasing epidemic of people obliviously badmouthing the people they work with in a public forum.
It is human nature to want to vent publicly about those that they feel have wronged them or failed them, but now you don’t even need to find a journalist; Twitter has made the experience frictionless.
This model generalizes beyond employer/employee relationships to anyone speaking publicly about anyone they work with, even in a general way. Let’s say you are a successful venture capitalist, and you choose to tweet: “Founders these days suck”. Here are the possible reader interpretations:
Founders these days really do suck, and we are all drowning in a sea of lemon founders. If that is really the case, though, almost everyone would have already noticed this, and there is no new information here - so what was the point of tweeting this? Also, if most founders these days don’t suck, then many readers will know that from experience and instantly dismiss this interpretation.
Founders these days are as good as they ever were, but the founders you meet with and work with now suck. You are smelling lemons everywhere because you can no longer get meetings with good founders. That can happen in life, because the world gets more competitive over time, but is this something you want to publicize on social media?
The founders you meet with are fine, but you suck. You are having lemon experiences all the time because you are the lemon and are being treated accordingly (e.g. you are losing deals to hungrier competitors). Again, this is maybe normal, because the world is always getting more competitive, but again, how is it to your advantage to publicize this?
It seems like a good idea to complain that you are surrounded by lemons, but logic dictates that in a world of imperfect information, you should never confess that you smell lemons. People will conclude that you can only attract lemons, or you tend to pick lemons, or that you yourself are the lemon! At the very minimum, you are sending the signal that you do not understand the model, or social norms in general. Complaining about lemons is 🚩🚩🚩.
The problem is with your intuition. You think that you are a reliable narrator and observer and that your personal experiences constitute an unbiased sample that you can confidently extrapolate from, while the observations of others are inherently unreliable and biased.
People think that they are making uniquely insightful observations about society when they complain about their lazy Gen Z employees, or their rude customers, or their short-sighted investors, when really they are revealing much more about themselves and their current situation than they ever intended.
Here we will leave an exercise for the reader. In light of the model we discussed here, why did some people react negatively to this tweet last week from Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke?
It is true that from the point of view of a lemon, everyone else is a lemon, but it must also be true that from the point of view of a genius, everyone else is a lemon. I wouldn’t know, though.