Lessons From a Courteous Garbage Man: Anyone Can be a Great Employee

For me, garbage day is Monday morning.

It may sound funny but it is one of the ways I know that the work week is starting. I put the trash and recycling out to the curb on Sunday night, and most of the time, it is gone by 6:30 am before I am fully awake and functioning.

Yesterday morning was a bit different. I was drinking my first cup of coffee and reading news when I saw the garbage man come down the street. I was drawn to watching him because he paused at my neighbor’s house much longer than the houses down the street from me. I peeked around my monitor and observed the scene.

Great customer service in unexpected places

When I looked a little closer, I noticed that my neighbor’s trash can had fallen into the street. Not only that but the trash wasn’t bagged very well so there was stuff everywhere. On top of that, it was rainy outside and the garbage was soaked.

I was honestly curious about what the garbage man would do. Would he take the trash left in the container and leave the rest on the street? Would he ignore it? Would he simply do an okay job, maybe leaving a few pieces?

I couldn’t blame him no matter how he reacted. He was a one-man crew, nobody was around, and I have to doubt that it was his job to pick up after the negligence of a customer.

After he paused in front of my neighbor’s garbage can, he pulled over until he was past the can. I saw him grab his coat, jump out of the vehicle, and pick up the trash out of the can. He then rolled the can over to the side of the garbage truck, dumped it’s contents (along with his rubber gloves), and roll it back to the curb.

I figured he had done good until I saw him write up a note in his truck and stick it to the top of the can and then drive to the next house.

Communicating a frustrating situation

“Ha!” I chortled silently. I knew it had to be a scathing note about how he had to clean up garbage because the neighbors left their garbage on the edge of the curb.

Being the curious person I am, I waited for the garbage truck to go down the street before I went outside and checked on the note. On a post-it with the garbage company’s information on it, he wrote:

Article Continues Below

Please keep your garbage can at least 6 inches from the curb. It’s easier on me and you don’t have walk as far. 🙂 — Chuck

No mention of the five minutes he spent cleaning up their trash? No mention of the fact that everyone gets that information when they sign up? No indication that everyone else keeps their garbage cans far away from tipping over?

Nope, just a polite note with a friendly (and kind of fun) reminder along with his name.

The Lesson: anyone in any industry can be a great employee

Being a trash collector can’t be the easiest job in the world, but it certainly isn’t the most difficult. It is pretty monotonous and you literally deal with garbage all day, but it certainly has its own rewards. As an example, Waste Management’s career listings say that a driver’s typical day means constant lifting and dragging of receptacles weighing 50-75 pounds and getting in and out of the truck 800-1,000 times per shift.

When a customer puts their garbage in a place where it will easily get knocked down, it can’t be entirely welcome. Yet the employee made it right without pause and sent a message that would hopefully prevent future occurrences without being a jerk about it.

Maybe this worker is an outlier, but that would be hard for me to believe. I’m guessing that not only do they hire the right people but they have the right values. They went out of their way to do the right thing in this instance, even if it wouldn’t be recognized by the customer (as far as I could tell, the person didn’t know their trash can was knocked down).

Most of your employees probably have a better job than a garbage man (by many people’s standards) yet do they go out of their way to deliver quality service? If they don’t, you have to wonder why a garbage man can do it but they can’t?

Whether it is your hiring, your company culture, or a multitude of possibilities, it is time to evaluate whether it is worth putting up with subpar performance when other people do not.

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
 
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.

Topics