CEOs say: A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter, or to others, is not a nice person

“Sitting in the chair of CEO makes me no better of a person than the forklift operator in our plant… Your value system and ethics need to be constant at all times regardless of who you are dealing with… Be especially wary of those who are rude to people perceived to be in subordinate roles.” — CEOs

A number of CEOs interviewed, shown in an article by USA Today, agree that how a person treats a waiter can predict a lot about their character. When someone says to a waiter things like, “I could buy this place and fire you!” or “I know the owner and I could have you fired!” it immediately raises a red flag to the person’s true identity regardless of their influence, wealth, and power.

“A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter, or to others, is not a nice person,” said Bill Swanson, retired chairman & CEO of Raytheon Technologies. He also warned us to “Watch out for people who have a situational value system, who can turn the charm on and off depending on the status of the person they are interacting with. Be especially wary of those who are rude to people perceived to be in subordinate roles”.

“How executives treat waiters probably demonstrates how they treat their actual employees. Sitting in the chair of CEO makes me no better of a person than the forklift operator in our plant. If you treat the waiter, or a subordinate like garbage, guess what? Are they going to give it their all? I don’t think so,” added the late Brenda Barnes, Sara Lee’s former chairman, president & CEO, who was also the former CEO of PepsiCo.

Waiter Rule

The Waiter Rule, or how we treat waiters, does not apply to waiters only. It also applies to the way we treat busboys, hotel maids, bellmen, garbage collectors, cleaners, security guards, mailroom clerks, ride-sharing drivers like Uber or Grab, and all other service workers as well for that matter.

Former Office Depot CEO and current Conference Board President & CEO Steve Odland was once a waiter himself more than 40 years ago. There was this one time when he was serving sorbet to a customer, he accidentally spilled the purple dessert on her expensive white gown. Odland then feared and “thought I would be shot on sight!”

However, lucky for him, the obviously rich and important customer told the then-teenage Odland, in a reassuring voice, “It’s OK. It wasn’t your fault.” She then left the future Fortune 500 CEO with one important life lesson that stayed with him till today: You can tell a lot about a person by the way he or she treats a waiter.

“Nice People”

On the other hand, Bill Swanson, the retired chairman & CEO of Raytheon Technologies shared, he once was eating with a man who became “absolutely obnoxious” to a waiter because a particular wine was out of stock in the restaurant. This made Swanson immediately realize that the man, though nice to him, in reality, is actually not a nice person.

Similarly, former Au Bon Pain/Panera Bread co-founder & CEO and current Act III Holdings CEO & Managing Partner Ron Shaich also had an experience when he was interviewing a job candidate for general counsel. She was “sweet” to Shaich but turned “amazingly rude” to someone cleaning the tables. So as “sweet” as she was to Shaich, she still didn’t get the job. The CEO was wise in not hiring such “sweet” people.

Shaich also practices asking his assistant, Laura Parisi, how job candidates applying for executive positions treated her before she transferred the calls to him. If job applicants were “pushy, self-absorbed, and rude” to Laura, I bet they can forget about getting hired.

“To some people, speaking in a condescending manner makes them feel important, which to me is a total turnoff,” Seymour Holtzman, former chairman of Casual Male Retail Group and current President & CEO of Jewelcor, expressed his disapproval.

Former CEO of Witness Systems and current Director of Matcha Dave Gould warns that CEOs who blow up at waiters have an ego out of control. “Those people tend not to be collaborative.”

Personal Values & Ethical Practices

During a contract negotiation between Dave Gould and another CEO, a waitress unintentionally spilled a full glass of red wine on the CEO’s expensive suit. Surprisingly, the CEO quickly made her feel at ease and even joked about it as if to say the spill actually helped… because he had no time to shower that morning. 😄 In witnessing this, Gould trusted that the other CEO is a person who is capable of handling and working out any differences with people from all walks of life.

Odland, with his own experience being a busboy more than 40 years ago, said, during that time, “People treated me wonderfully, and others treated me like dirt. There were a lot of ugly people. I didn’t have the money or the CEO title at the time, but I had the same intelligence and raw ability as I have today. Why would people treat me differently? Your value system and ethics need to be constant at all times regardless of who you are dealing with.”

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