Behind the Scenes: Respecting those who serve you

[I am breaking into my series on “Executive Assistants and Respect” to post an article on another group of service people – wait staff in dining establishments; a topic that is now of great interest to me.]

Almost three years after my retirement from Harvard, my work life took an unexpected turn.  I began waiting tables in the dining room of the retirement community where I live.

Our dining room is chronically short staffed for a variety of entirely understandable reasons.  The work is physically hard, and the pay is relatively low.  We offer staff a generous yearly bonus but no tips.  For these reasons, the job attracts mostly young people – high school and college students for whom this may be their first work experience.  We feel very grateful for them and for the more mature wait staff who have been serving steadily and faithfully for many years.  However, the lives of teenagers and those in their early twenties are constantly changing, and their studies must take priority, so they often need to move on to other important things.  The staff turns over rapidly and hiring and training new staff takes a great deal of time, effort, and patience.  The head of dining services and the dining room manager are always between a rock and a hard place.  They want to offer the residents the highest quality service – an excellent dining experience – but they find that difficult to do with a shortage of wait staff.

When the head of dining services described this situation at a resident meeting this past fall, I immediately wondered if I, at the age of 65, could do anything to help solve the dilemma.  I was completely aware of my time constraints and physical limitations, but I spoke with the dining services director anyway, offering my assistance in any form that might work for both of us.

A month later I started waiting tables on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.  The other residents and the kitchen and wait staff are very supportive and patient, and after two months of learning the ropes, I am beginning to relax and enjoy the work.

I have learned more than I could have imagined about what goes on behind the scenes in the kitchen and what wait staff do.  My respect for those who do this work has grown enormously.

Shifts for wait staff during the evening meal are four hours long.  On very busy days or days when the dining room is short-staffed, they can stretch to four and a half or even five hours.  Some staff work two shifts a day, a full eight-hour workday.

For the first hour, the staff members prepare for the meal.  Wait staff check tables to make sure the settings are complete, prepare condiments, make the coffee, fill water pitchers, set up the service stations, prepare fruit cups, cut and plate desserts, restock the ice cream freezer and make sure dressing and beverage dispensers are full.  They prepare the order slips for the tables they have been assigned and make a note of the starch and vegetables being offered and special appetizers and desserts for the day. They also prepare trays for room service, deliver them and, if there is any time left, fold napkins. Ten minutes before the meal begins, the chefs brief the waitstaff on the menu, and there is an opportunity for reminders and questions.  If short staffed, and table service is not feasible, the wait staff help to set up a buffet.

Once the meal begins, wait staff are in constant motion for two full hours. On most evenings the waiter is assigned three to five tables of various seating capacity.  The timed arrival of diners makes it possible for one wait person to serve as many as 16 people during the meal.  They offer beverages, take orders, deliver appetizers, entrees, desserts, coffee and tea, clear tables between courses, and reset tables when guests have departed.  There is no separate “bussing” staff, so wait people do it all.

Once the meal is over, around 7:00 or 7:30, wait staff are assigned “closing” tasks.  Covering unused salads, desserts, and condiments, restocking supplies and linens, washing the coffeemaker and pots, wiping trays and carts, picking up room service trays, and disassembling the buffet table.

The dining services director and dining room manager supervise the entire four-hour shift and pitch in when necessary to make sure service is smooth and timely.  It is, indeed, a well-oiled machine and teamwork at its very best.  Staff members look out for one another and help when they see a need.  They do this with good humor, respect, and appreciation for everyone’s contribution.  Current staff welcome new members with open arms.  He or she will make everyone’s work easier.  All are open to learning from and encouraging one another.

Even more “behind the scenes” are the chefs and their assistants.  The kitchen is busy and well organized.  The chefs are proud of the food they prepare and serve, and they help the wait staff to provide the best service.

While all of this is specific to the dining room in my retirement community, it provides a window into restaurant and foodservice venues everywhere.  Our residents and dining room clientele are appreciative and respectful of the staff who serve them, but I wonder how many know what goes on behind the scenes to deliver the meals they enjoy daily.

So, the next time you are dining out at a restaurant or frequenting our dining room and service seems a little slow, or a wait person forgets an item you have requested, or you are facing yet another buffet on a night when staff is short, please remember that the folks who are serving respect you. They are doing their best and are worthy of your respect too.





Dignity and Respect


I want to take a short break from what at least one of my readers has called “depressing” reflections on nursing home conditions to dwell briefly on the suggestion that Harry Lewis made in response to my introduction many weeks ago:

Sometime you can parse the relation of respect to dignity. There is actually rather a lot of talk about DISrespect these days, so much so that the word has been turned into a verb. This thought is rather fuzzy in my mind, but it seems that people would be more likely to be treated with respect if they acted with dignity, and dignity is today considered inauthentic, like using the dessert spoon while eating the entree.

After some reading and reflection, I have come to consider dignity as an inherent quality of all human beings, what I will call “inherent dignity.”  Respect, on the other hand, is a sentiment demonstrated through certain behaviors offered in response to perceived inherent dignity.  Respect may also be earned by “worthy”, or as Harry would perhaps say, “dignified” behavior.

The notion of inherent dignity is, I think at root, a religious one.  For example, Daniel Groody writes in “Globalization, Spirituality and Justice”, p.109:

Catholic social teaching believes that human beings, created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27), have by their very existence an inherent value, worth, and distinction. This means that God is present in every person, regardless of his or her race, nation, sex, origin, orientation, culture, or economic standing. Catholic Social Teaching asserts that all human beings must see within every person both a reflection of God and a mirror of themselves, and must honour  and respect this dignity as a divine gift.

Apart from a creationist or religious belief, the notion that, as human beings, we share the same “essence” encourages us to believe in the worth and value of others as we believe in our own worth and value.

There is little about an elderly man or woman in a nursing home that would elicit a natural response of respect. Most are physically ravaged by age and illness, possibly scarred or handicapped, stooped, and weak; many are angry or resentful about their condition, tired, lonely, and hungry. Under these circumstances, some are incapable of acting with dignity. Whether we recognize these individuals as children of God or simply as fellow human beings, determines whether we acknowledge their inherent dignity and respond with respect.

As a society, I think we have come to value “productivity” in all its forms as the highest possible good, the most valued human quality.  Those who are not “productive” for whatever reason—age, mental or physical disability, social or financial disadvantage—are considered of less value and are regarded as less deserving of respect. This, I believe, is why we allow the oldest members of our communities to live in conditions that, when we come face to face with them, appall us and make us afraid of our own end-of-life circumstances.

If you were to ask an elderly person, faced with entering a nursing home what he or she fears most, I believe (and research has shown) that the answer would amount to the inability to make one’s own decisions or the loss of control – control of one’s body, of one’s surroundings, of one’s schedule.  It is extremely difficult to maintain a sense of personal dignity, and therefore an expectation that one deserves respect under these conditions.  Some elders do so.  They are the ones we consider dignified; the ones we admire and hope to emulate.  The ones we may respect.  But the others?

The way we treat the elderly, indeed, the way we treat all those who are more vulnerable than we imagine ourselves to be, says a great deal about who we are as a society.

For this reason, I am writing about the “depressing” conditions in nursing homes.

Respect: Accidental

Sometimes an act of respect simply happens, without either party involved noticing or consciously identifying it as such at the time, though usually one, or both, come away feeling good about the interaction.

During my work life as an executive assistant at Radcliffe College and Harvard University, I served a total of six deans, a president, and a vice president. I plan to write more about executive assistants and respect in future posts, but the incident I’m describing today occurred toward the end of my career and happened at the school of engineering.

The workday of an executive assistant is full of a long string of interruptions; sometimes the interruptions are themselves interrupted. Priority projects are extremely difficult to complete.  Anything that needs focus, concentration, and quiet must usually be done before or after work hours, when co-workers and bosses are not in the office.  I and my fellow EAs at the school of engineering, as we were wont to call ourselves, came up with a tentative plan to claim some “quiet time” for ourselves during the workday by closing our doors from time to time so that we could concentrate on tasks that needed, well, concentration.

At the suggestion of another EA that we ask our bosses if this plan were acceptable to them,  I looked for an appropriate time to speak with the dean I was then supporting, who happened to be new in his role.  From my perspective, the conversation did not go well.  He seemed, shall I say, resistant to the idea.  Up until then, he been very understanding and supportive of my work needs, so I was disappointed and a bit surprised by his reaction.  I felt deflated by the end of the conversation, and he seemed annoyed.

I was in the EA business for a long time and considered myself very adaptable, resourceful and tough. I tried to start each new day fresh and cheerful, so when the dean came into the office the next day, we exchanged a “good morning” and asked each other how we were.  I said my usual, “Fine.”  A few moments later he returned to my desk and said, “Tell me more about your need for quiet time.”  My heart smiled.  I thanked him for asking and described how difficult it was to get things done with many interruptions, however legitimate they might be.  He described his feeling that it was important for the dean’s office, and the dean, to have an “open door policy” and to be available throughout business hours to faculty, students and anyone who might need us.  I expressed my understanding and agreement and explained that I thought simply closing the door part way might encourage those who were headed toward the office to think again about the importance of their errand and whether it might wait until another time.  We didn’t “settle” on a policy, but by the end of the conversation, we better understood each other.  I respected him even more than I had previously, especially for his courage, sensitivity, and generosity in continuing a conversation that had gone badly the previous day.  I felt heard, and because I felt heard, I felt respected.

With All Due Respect – Introduction

My name is Moriah Freeman.  I’m a retired executive assistant who worked at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA for 25 years.  Since my retirement nearly a year ago, I have spent much time reflecting on my career, my life and responsibilities outside of work, my relationships, the American society in which I live, and my beliefs about what is true, good, loving and just.

In all my reflections, the theme of “respect” has come up repeatedly.  I have decided to start a blog as a way of sharing some of my thoughts about respect and of inviting conversation about this topic.   I think respect is key and integral to life in community – and we all live in at least one community, our families.  Many of us live in several.

I will describe some of the situations in which I have experienced both respect and disrespect and some in which I have observed respectful and disrespectful actions and attitudes toward others.  I’d like, also, to share my reflections on how I believe disrespect has arisen in that situation and how respect might be expressed – what it might look like.

I acknowledge that my perspective is limited by a number of factors: my race, age, economic status, family and social background, education, life experience and belief system.  That’s why I hope to encourage a conversation about respect.  I’m very interested in your perspectives.

I’d like to establish several guidelines for participation in this conversation:

  1. No obscenities, swearing or disrespectful language.
  2. Contributions should be limited to 500 words per entry.
  3. Briefly describe your background when submitting a contribution.
  4. Write about your perspective, and refrain from criticizing that of another contributor.

I will request that you edit posts that do not meet these guidelines. If you do not do so, I will delete the post.

Some of the topics I hope to introduce include the following:

  • What being respected does for a person
  • Learning to walk in another’s shoes, or at least to watch the other walk
  • Respect for the aging and elderly
  • Respect for homeless persons and understanding the “system” of housing the poor
  • When just one person cares and respects
  • Respect for the religious beliefs of others
  • Respect for those who serve and, in particular, those who serve us
  • Respect for animals
  • Respect for the earth
  • Respect in the long run – long-term relationships
  • Respectful endings

Most of the incidents I will describe and discuss are true and involve real people.  In each case I will ask the person or persons involved before writing about them.  In some cases I will involve them in writing the post; most often I will not use their real names.

This is not a “political blog,” but in present-day American society, it would be silly to imagine that political opinions will not enter into our discussion.  My hope is that, as we write, we will try to explain clearly our points of view and how they have arisen and been formulated, and that we will not resort to vilifying those who disagree with us.

I want to thank one of the most respectful people I know, Professor Harry Lewis, of Harvard University, for suggesting the title of this blog. I served as executive assistant to Professor Lewis for six months while he was interim dean of the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.  

I believe the ideas we will share with each other have great value.  Let us be gentle with one another.