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Saturday, March 7, 2009

A True Story About an Employee Who Was Too Good

A True Story About an Employee Who Was Too Good

by Steve Bruce

I met him at least 8 years ago at the Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport. He wore black pants and a white shirt with a black tie and bib apron. "Let me carry that for you, young man," he said, noticing the balancing act I was performing with my luggage and the tray of food from Paschal's Restaurant.

The old fellow grabbed my tray with a smile and was off, limping heavily on one leg that was obviously shorter than the other. I followed him around the escalator to an empty table I would never have found, and it was only then when I realized that he had also brought napkins, a straw, and packages of salt and pepper ... items I usually forget.

With a flourish, he wiped the table, removed my plate from the tray and arranged it carefully with the napkins and the iced tea. Pulling back my chair as I hurriedly retrieved three, one-dollar bills from my pocket, he smiled and said, "God bless you." His nametag read: FOSTER.

I was curious to see if this was a new service the airport had put in place. Certainly, I had never been "helped" before. I saw several other men and women dressed like my new friend, loosely assembled, and talking with each other, waiting without enthusiasm for tables to come empty. At that point, one of them would disengage from the group, clear any trash left on the table wipe it down, and return to their co-workers.

Glancing around the huge area, I quickly spotted Foster. Smiling, laughing, and moving fast, he helped one person after another. He never waited to be summoned. He went where he was needed.

I was back through the airport the next day and couldn't wait to visit the food court again. Sure enough, there he was, the old man with the big smile. He helped me to a table as he had the day before (with napkins, salt and pepper, and a straw) and said, "God bless you, young man," as he held out my chair.

I had a twenty folded and ready to place in his hand that day. I was impressed and inspired by this old man who struggled to walk, yet moved like a dervish as he cleaned empty tables and looked for people to serve. From that day forward, he was Mr. Foster to me.

As the years rolled by, I developed a great admiration for Mr. Foster. I saw him several times each month and introduced him to anyone with whom I was traveling. "Watch this guy," I would always instruct as he left our table. "And watch that bunch of other people over there dressed just like him." The contrast was clear.

I never once suspected Mr. Foster was making a play for tips. In fact, though I rarely slipped him less than twenty dollars, he often made me wait while he helped someone in obvious need of assistance. And whether they offered money or not, he always smiled, held their chairs and said, "God bless you."

And then he was gone. Unable to find my friend, I asked the ladies at Paschal's, "Where is Mr. Foster today?"

"Fired," they told me. "They fired him. Humiliated him. Sent the man home!"

The Atlanta Airport Authority, I was told, had determined that Mr. Foster had become "a distraction." They ordered him to stop helping people. "Stand with everyone else," he was told, "and wait for the tables to empty. You are a busboy; act like one."

A few months later, he was back (happy as ever) on a trial basis. But I never again let him carry my tray. I did, however, continue with the tips. He took the money because I made him take it. I was mad for him and he knew it. His "God bless you's" often came to me with a tear. His spirit was gone.

Today, I went by Paschal's. Before I could even ask, one of the ladies on the serving line spotted me. "I been expecting you," she said. "Mr. Foster's gone. He quit. Told 'em he was old and sick and couldn't do the work no more." Then she cocked her head and added with a whisper, "He ain't sick. There ain't nothing broken about that old man."

Nope, I thought as I turned away, there ain't nothing broken about that old man. Nothing but his heart.

What happens to the Mr. Fosters in your organization? What can you do to encourage employees to go above and beyond for customers? Or should you? What do you think?

Andy Andrews can be reached at

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