For Leap Day, a story about the Waiter Rule and its “Florida Man” origins

by Joey deVilla on February 29, 2016

walt bettinger breakfast

Charles Schwab CEO Walt Bettinger (left), breakfast (right).

definitely floridaFor the past couple of weeks, there’ve been a number of articles pointing to this New York Times interview with Walt Bettinger, CEO of Charles Schwab, in which he talks about his breakfast interview technique for reviewing prospective hires:

“I’m most concerned with the kind of person they are, their character. I’ll ask questions like, ‘Tell me about the greatest successes in your life.’ What I’m looking for is whether their view of the world really revolves around others or whether it revolves around them. And I’ll ask them about their greatest failures in their life and see whether they own them or whether they were somebody else’s fault.”

“One thing I’ll do sometimes is to meet someone for breakfast for the interview. I’ll get there early, pull the manager of the restaurant aside, and say, ‘I want you to mess up the order of the person who’s going to be joining me. It’ll be O.K., and I’ll give a good tip, but mess up their order.’”

“I do that because I want to see how the person responds. That will help me understand how they deal with adversity. Are they upset, are they frustrated or are they understanding? Life is like that, and business is like that. It’s just another way to get a look inside their heart rather than their head.”

“We’re all going to make mistakes. The question is how are we going to recover when we make them, and are we going to be respectful to others when they make them?”

It’s a good trick, and for those of you who are interviewing for jobs should be advised that it’s making the rounds in a number of publications, which means that it may be used a little more heavily for the next few weeks.

Haven’t I seen this somewhere before?

The story gave me deja vu, and a little Googling later, I found this USA Today article from 2006, which opens with this story about Office Depot’s then-CEO, from his days waiting tables:

Office Depot CEO Steve Odland remembers like it was yesterday working in an upscale French restaurant in Denver.

The purple sorbet in cut glass he was serving tumbled onto the expensive white gown of an obviously rich and important woman. “I watched in slow motion ruining her dress for the evening,” Odland says. “I thought I would be shot on sight.”

Thirty years have passed, but Odland can’t get the stain out of his mind, nor the woman’s kind reaction. She was startled, regained composure and, in a reassuring voice, told the teenage Odland, “It’s OK. It wasn’t your fault.” When she left the restaurant, she also left the future Fortune 500 CEO with a life lesson: You can tell a lot about a person by the way he or she treats the waiter.

A plagiarizing CEO’s million-dollar mistake

bill swanson and waiter

An actual photo of former Raytheon CEO Bill Swanson and a waiter, posed for USA Today.

You might think that it’s CEOs all the way down, because the article points to a book that Raytheon gave away, titled Swanson’s Unwritten Rules of Management, written by then-CEO Bill Swanson. It features 33 rules very home-spun, down-to-earth-sounding maxims for managers, number 32 of which is “The Waiter Rule”:

32. A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter, or to others, is not a nice person. (This rule never fails).

It turned out that Swanson’s rules weren’t really Swanson’s. It turned out that in April 2006, Raytheon had to issue a press release with the usual mitigating language that admitted that Swanson plagiarized many of his rules from W.J. King’s The Unwritten Laws of Engineering, a 1944 book that at least one engineering prof of mine at Crazy Go Nuts University cited in class.

According to the New York Times, 17 out of the 33 rules in Swanson’s book– for the math-challenged, that’s more than half — were lifted verbatim from The Unwritten Laws of Engineering. As punishment, Raytheon froze his 2006 salary at its 2005 level and reduced his restricted stock award by 20 percent, which an anonymous insider said cut his compensation for that year by about a million dollars.

It doesn’t end there. The first of the rules that Swanson said were his was “Learn to say ‘I don’t know.’ If used when appropriate, it will be used often,” and it’s a word-for-word copy of one of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s “Rumsfeld Rules”, which appeared in a 2001 Wall Street Journal article (the original’s no longer online, but the rules were reposted here).

And finally, the Florida connection…

As for the Waiter Rule, it turns out to be wisdom that Swanson likely lifted from a Florida Man. He’s one of Florida’s wisest men, but he’s still a man who lives in Florida:

dave barry turns 50

In Dave Barry Turns 50, a book published in 1999 and that I suspect I will be given at least once on my 2017 birthday, he includes this pearl of wisdom:

If someone is nice to you but rude to the waiter, they are not a nice person.

And there you have it: a little bit of Florida Man-related news that isn’t embarrassing. Happy Leap Day, everyone!

Recommended Reading

Want to waste some additional time online today? Take a look at this entry from TV Tropes: Nice to the Waiter.

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