This post origially appeared on my old website about ten years ago. It still resonates today.

Let’s talk about work ethic today. And I’ll use recent experiences I had with two service people (one clerk, and one waiter.) 

A bit back, Maryellen and I went to a local place to eat. We love the place – really good food, very reasonable, and usually good service.

So we go in, get seated and then… nothing. We had menus, and were ready to order, but a server never came. I guess the person who handled our section just wasn’t on the ball. I could see three waitresses talking, and I made eye contact, but nobody came. 5 minutes go by, and I’m ready to leave (I never complain about stuff like this anymore, because I’m pretty sarcastic/not nice about it. It’s a character flaw of mine, but I can’t help it. So to spare me being mean to someone, I just leave.)

The waiter handling the next table notices me getting ready to leave, and he says “nobody helped you?” to which I reply “no”. He sighed, looked over at the group of waitresses, and then said “nevermind, I’ll handle you guys”.

And he did – superbly. I tipped him $15 for a $25 check.

Part of the reason I tipped him heavy was because I really admire that attitude in any worker, in any profession. It’s how I am personally in any job I ever had. He saw a problem, and instead of passing it off, he took ownership of it. He didn’t worry about “they don’t pay me enough” or “that’s not my area” or whatever. He saw a problem that was solvable by him, and he solved it. People like that will go far in life.

Then a day later, I had the exact opposite experience.

I go to Lowes (a home improvement store for those that don’t know.) I needed a new shop-vac for the garage. I go to the display, and figure the 12 Gallon one would suffice. But there aren’t any there… there’s a hole where the boxes for this model should be. I look up, and waaaay on the top shelf I see a bunch of them. In the next aisle, there’s one of those movable stairway/ladder type things that can be used to get these down. All I need is a clerk…

There are three within 20′ of me, all hanging out and talking. I approach and ask if someone could get me a shop vac down. They said they’d get someone, and call on the phone. 5 minutes go by, and nobody comes. I go back to the three, and ask again. One guy curtly says “well, I called someone”, as if telling me that should satisfy me (it didn’t).  Finally, I said “screw it” and went to the ladder myself and started to bring it over to the shop vac aisle – I’ll do this myself.

One of the three sees what I am doing and runs over yelling “hey hey… don’t touch that” to which I said “well, I’m not waiting anymore – I’ll do it myself”. Clearly annoyed, he says “fine! I’ll do it” and grudgingly wheels the ladder over and gets me a shop vac.

So he brings it down and I say “why didn’t you just do that five minutes ago?” He just gives me “the look” and walks away, pissed because… I dunno. Because he had to work?  Whatever.

Note: I named Lowes, but this is not on them. They have a reputation as a good employer, and indeed, I almost always get excellent service there. This is towards one clerk only.

But yea, the contrast between these two service experiences is telling. Both of these guys seemed to be in their mid 20′s, but had far different attitudes regarding work. One guy saw a problem and fixed it. The other got annoyed and essentially said “not my job”. I’ll bet almost anything that, regardless of where they end up in life, the waiter out-earns the Lowes guy many times over during the next thirty years.  People who solve problems are always in demand. People who hide are the first to get laid off.

To me, this is a character issue, and is not something that can be taught – you either think this way, or you don’t.

What do you think?