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Is Your Service Ivy League or Minor League?

Last week, I met with a client at the Harvard Club in Manhattan. Membership in a university club can be very practical, especially for out-of-towners; the club serves as a well-appointed home-base hotel, providing a sense of comfort and the security of being “a member of the club.”

Membership Rewards

We walked from the lobby into the Harvard Club’s Main Bar, looking for a place to sit and chat. Here’s the description from the club’s website: “Richly decorated with Harvard memorabilia, our cordial bartenders serve up classic drinks (including our very own ‘Crimson Cocktail’), complimentary snacks and, of course, an abundance of good cheer.”

But the experience wasn’t exactly as advertised. The bar was staffed by a single barman, and had no one sitting at it. The center of the room served as a kind of corridor between the lobby and a larger common room. On the side of the main barroom were several clusters of low tables, chairs, and couches. Used glasses, cups and saucers, and napkins lay unattended on every single table, including ours.

The barman neither greeted us when we came in nor offered us anything, although we were there for almost two hours. At some point, my client (the actual Harvard Club member) went to the bar and asked for a glass of water, which he got. The barman never checked back, and no one came to clear the detritus off the tables.

Them’s the Rules

During the course of our discussion, several nicely dressed, clean-cut types of all ages came and went, some stopping to sit, others just passing through. From time to time, a member would walk through the room talking on his cellphone, and every time, within seconds, each of them was shooed out by a well-tailored gentleman with a well-tended white goatee. None of the phone talkers objected at all; they vacated the room immediately. The enforcement, unlike the service, was impeccable.

Comfort and security often coexist with a clear sense of the rules, clearly enforced. But that’s not what I experienced that afternoon. As a non-member of the Harvard Club, I was fascinated by the lack of graciousness to be found there. The goateed enforcer never smiled or greeted anyone, and the bartender seemed to be the soul of detachment and remoteness. There was no warmth, no welcome — absolutely nothing collegial about the experience.

Of course, it is possible to be formal and cordial at the same time, to be well educated — even elite — as well as affable and a good host. Membership may have its privileges, but service takes actual intention, focus, and effort.

Onward and upward,


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