Little courtesies – getting a coffee

A number of years ago when I was a chartered accountant working in one of the large CA firms, I used to regularly get coffee for my boss, one of the partners. Every time that I would get a coffee for myself or I went to the copy room, I would ask if I could bring him a coffee. As his office was virtually across the hall from mine, it was a quick and easy effort to get his coffee multiple times a day. He was a very hard worker and a busy person, so I know that this small courtesy saved him time and he appreciated the gesture.

woman passing a man a coffee

This was all happening at a time when there was heightened awareness among women about getting equal treatment in the workplace and being regarded as equal. Before you think that there was some element of subjugation of me as a woman, consider this – he used to get coffee for me, too. Sometimes he would just need to get up for a little bit of exercise after sitting in place for a protracted period. At other times, he just wanted to clear his thoughts. He would pop his head into my office and make the same offer that I would make to him.

The arrangement worked for both of us and neither of us really thought about it … until one particular day. A woman, claiming to be a spokesperson for other women in the firm, raised the matter of my getting his coffee. She didn’t ask me about it – she accused and claimed that I was setting the cause of women and equality back years. She wrapped up her comments quite neatly with the directive that I should tell him to get his own coffee.

At the time I was pretty surprised that anyone had observed the coffee service and that she felt she had the right to comment to me. With the benefit of hindsight I am a little more forgiving, considering the times and the sensitivity that many women had to evolving equity issues in the workplace. I also have no insight into the relationship that the woman had with this particular partner nor how she felt that she was or was not progressing within the firm.

My reaction today would be the same – I would still get my boss coffee, not because I had to or was asked to, but because I would want to. I would want my boss, in turn, to continue to get me coffee. For me, this is all about respect and consideration for another human being. Nothing involving power, position or control would enter into my thinking.

My other reaction would be about minding one’s own business. It’s a full-time job to manage my own behavior and the performance of the company – I just don’t have time to be judge and jury on something as small as getting coffee for someone else. I would hope that people could elevate their behavior and take less interest in what someone else does and focus on their own behavior exclusively. My advice – care about the things that matter and tell me about those things.

Now that I am in the role of boss (oh, how I hate some of the connotations of that word but it does communicate position), I extend the courtesy of coffee pickup to others. I enjoy doing things for people, and it doesn’t matter to me that I am in a superior position on an organization chart. Little courtesies like this define who I am and make me feel good about working with others.

Tell someone Get your own coffee? I don’t think so.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.