People with a Situational Value System

Photo Credit: Post Secret Archive

The other night, my wife and I were at a very nice hotel here in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. We went with our family to enjoy a show and prior to attending it, decided to get some coffee.

As we were standing in line waiting (we were second in line) at a busy one-person coffee stand, the woman waiting behind us (she was third in line) yelled out, “Can I go ahead and pay for this?” It didn’t matter to her that two other people (the first lady in line and us) were ahead of her in this ordering process.

I forgot what “this” was. It might have been a bottle of water or something small. But pretty much everyone else waiting patiently in line was ordering something small. After she interrupted and cut in line, she made some disparaging remarks about the single employee working there.

My wife and I both used to work as waiters and thus we’re especially sensitive to and aware of how we (and others often) treat waiters, waitresses, or anyone in a people service profession (e.g., hotel maids, bellmen, etc.). When I see behaviors like this woman’s, it brings me back to the time years ago when I worked as a waiter for a restaurant in Austin.

I didn’t know it at first, but quickly realized, as the other wait staff informed me, that I was waiting on a baseball celebrity and his family. Ok, no sweat, I’ll just make sure that I’m at my best and take care of them as I’ve done so with many customers in the past.

Because the family was busy visiting and chatting loudly, I stepped back to give them time to decide what they wanted to order. Not long afterwards, the wife snapped her fingers (like a rich person does when she beckons her servants) at me. After the family ordered, she dismissed me (like “I’m done with you now leave my sight” type of attitude).

In “Dave Barry Turns 50,” Barry (1998) shared 25 things in 50 years in his life. Under #21 he says,

“A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter, or to others, is not a nice person” (Barry, 1998, p. 185).

“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.” -William H. Swanson*, CEO of Raytheon [Cited in the USA Today article titled “CEOs say how you treat a waiter can predict a lot about character”]

I think this advice should be taken very seriously, especially by those in a supervisory or management role. In a USA Today article, Siki Giunta (CEO of Managed Objects, but who previously worked as a bartender) summed this up well when she said this type of situational behavior is a good predictor of a person’s character because it’s not something you can learn or unlearn easily but instead it shows how you were raised.

So whether it’s ordering coffee on a Saturday night or interacting with employees at work on a Monday morning, it behooves all of us (CEOs, managers, and employees) to treat everyone (above and below us) with kindness, dignity, and respect.


*NOTE & REFERENCES UPDATED June 2013: When I originally wrote this “situational value system” post in December 2009, I was aware of the controversy surrounding William Swanson (CEO of Raytheon), for having plagiarized much of his book, Swanson’s Unwritten Rules of Management (it is no longer distributed). Many of Swanson’s rules (17 of them) came from a 1944 book called “The Unwritten Laws of Engineering” by W. J. King.

According to the New York Times, the first four of Swanson’s rules came from a 2001 Wall Street Journal article written by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (called “Rumsfeld Rules”). And, finally, Swanson’s rule #32 which I quoted in my blog post (A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter, or to others, is not a nice person) was taken from a book called “Dave Barry Turns 50.” I have credited Dave Barry (it’s on p. 185 of Barry’s 1998 book).

While it is clear that Swanson plagiarized the rules in his book, I have been unable to verify the origin of the situational value system quote used in the USA Today article (titled CEOs say how you treat a waiter can predict a lot about character) which attributed the saying to Swanson. There’s also a similar quote (but without the “Be especially wary of those who are rude to people perceived to be in subordinate roles” part) also attributed to Swanson in Paul Kaihla’s 2005 article in Business 2.0 called “The CEO’s Secret Handbook.”


Barry, D. (1998). Dave Barry Turns 50. New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group.

Jones, D. (2006, April 17). CEOs say how you treat a waiter can predict a lot about character. USA Today. Retrieved from

Jones, D. (2006, April 25). Raytheon chief says he didn’t plagiarize. Retrieved from

Kaihla, P. (2005). The CEO’s Secret Handbook. Business 2.0, 6(6), 68-74.

Leonhardt, D. (2006, May 3). Rule No. 35: Reread Rule on Integrity. Retrieved from

USA Today (2006, May 5). Raytheon gets out of the book biz, stops distributing CEO’s booklet. Retrieved from

Wayne, L. (2006, April 24). Raytheon Chief’s Management Rules Have a Familiar Ring. Retrieved from

Wayne, L. (2006, May 3). Raytheon Punishes Chief Executive for Lifting Text. Retrieved from

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