The great tipping debate

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Should tipping be the burden of the customer? And should restauranteurs benefit from loose minimum wage laws in the industry? The industry is split, and those who are challenging it are beginning to face some serious pushback. 

Coming back to the states and experiencing reverse culture shock has been interesting. Most notably I'm back in Queens, New York, only to discover it's the top U.S. destination for 2015 (!) according to Lonely Planet. That aside, there's one big standout when I think about my readjustment back home. While it may seem frugal to some, the U.S. tipping policy is one of the hardest things for me to adjust to even though it's something I grew up with.

Living abroad, tipping is hardly a requirement. In fact some cultures consider it an insult to tip employees who are simply doing their jobs. In the United States, however, we've created a tipping culture I often struggle with. And while I've mostly felt alone on this, the more I inquire, the more I find others who are equally frustrated about the customer's burden to tip.

A recent trip to L.A. was the tipping point for this post (pardon the pun). While I can rest easy knowing California doesn't allow employers to pay a lower wage to tipped employees, I experienced the gamut of new tipping pressures I wanted to share:

Maid tips

My little guestroom actually had a tip envelope for maids. Despite how cute the graphics were, I felt it was a bold move on the hotel’s part to ask a guest paying close to US$350 for a 350-square-foot (32.5-square-meter) room to tip their maids. You'd never find a tip envelope at a luxury hotel, and on the flip side, you'd never find a tip envelope at a youth hostel. So why are hotels starting to take this stand?

Takeaway tips

The takeaway juice bar had a nifty iPad where I could sign my bill. When the cashier turned it around for me to sign, there was an option to add a 0%, 18%, 20% or 22% tip. There I was with the stylus in hand deciding what to do while she stood over me waiting as I made a decision. I quickly selected "no tip," signed and hit enter. I left feeling horrible, but if it isn't expected to tip the Starbucks barista, why are we pressured to tip the team that makes cold-pressed juices?

Healthcare surcharge

At Republique a 3% surcharge is added to the bill to cover healthcare costs for staff. Trust me when I say I don't mind paying more to ensure staff are properly taken care of, just like I don't mind paying a premium for local produce, but I'd prefer if the increase in labor costs was simply built into the price just like it would have been if there was a rise in food costs. You'd certainly never see a hotel add a healthcare surcharge — I hope.

Barista tips  

Tipping the Starbucks barista who makes a latte, but not an Americano. Have you heard that one?

Kitchen tips  

Bestia in the Arts District has a separate bill line for a mandatory kitchen service charge of 3%. The purpose is to incentivize good kitchen staff by putting the onus on the customer like any other tip. Now to be fair, the owner did consider other options. He considered raising menu prices, eliminating tipping and the possibility of a built in 20% service charge. Ultimately he didn't think customers would find such systems to be transparent and felt tipping was too embedded in the culture. But isn't "mandatory tipping" an oxymoron? And even if we decide how much to tip on our own, do we actually know where that money is going? And is tipping part of the culture or more an obligation when dining out?

Spa tips  

If I'm going to tip US$50 on a US$250 treatment, trust me, I'd feel a whole lot better if you'd just make the price US$300 and include the tip.

On the flip side, I also experienced:

The rejected tip

Uber includes a service charge. All in it was still only a fraction of what a taxi would cost me excluding the tip. When I wanted to tip the driver extra he was grateful, but turned it down.

Service included  

Katzu Nori and other restaurants include tip. While this isn't much different from asking you to tip on top of the bill, I appreciated that the pressure wasn't on me to decide how much I'd be leaving. It reminded me of Thomas Keller, Alice Waters and other restaurateurs who have taken this stance.

Flight attendants

I purchased a snack from my economy seat on United. No tip expected. Great. In fact, we've never tipped flight attendants who lift our bags, serve us food, clean our toilets, et cetera.

I love tipping someone who has done a great job, but are there some long-term risks we aren't acknowledging?

Are we encouraging tipped employees to provide preferential treatment to high tippers? Are we encouraging heavy pours at the bar? Shorter wait times to the guest who greases the door? Are we discouraging growth in an organization when a line employee can make more than a manager? Are all staff tipped equally?

Tell me what your thoughts are, and take this survey. I want to know what the rest of the industry thinks, and stay tuned for the survey results."

This is what some in the industry had to say about it:

  • “I think the industry in North America needs to take responsibility for paying a living wage to service workers. If we expect to attract the best and brightest to our industry, then paying the front line workers needs to be the place we begin. Remember when being a server was an honorable profession?”
  • “While Tips are an added bonus for very low paying jobs, I believe that tipping should be based on overall experience (service plus product). It should also be at the discretion of the customer. My culture and upbringing taught me to work hard whether there is an incentive or not. Having a good job and being able to work my way up the ladder is incentive enough.”
  • “I think tipping should not be mandatory but based on the service you receive. I don't tip for counter service.”
  • “Tipping is just another way that companies externalize costs.”
  • “Pay decent wages and stop gouging the customer.”
  • “North America should either include 15 % service charge (stated on the menu) or build it in into the price.”
  • “Leave this topic as is...tipping is embedded in the US.”
  • “I like to give tips, if a appreciate a good service and if I have confidenz in the allocation system of the company. Between 3% to 8%. In our country, service is included”
  • “Tipping should be entirely voluntary, not expected at all and done to any service worker who excels. I have tipped at Pizza Hut when service was good!”
  • “I'd be curious to see the results of a survey on what motivates hospitality industry people to deliver good service. E.g. Is it mainly money (wages, tips)? Or prestige of rank & title? Or...just a genuine desire to perform well in what is a *service* industry and do the job the way it's should be done? I.e. I'd be interesting to know how many people in hospitality are actually in it because of what the industry stands for - *hospitality'* (vs. other reasons).”
  • “It should not be an expectation of being tipped. Give good/great service and then maybe you'll receive a tip - maybe! “
  • “An automatic gratuity of 15%, with the option of tipping an additional amount, could be a compromise that protects employees, while at the same time allowing customers to recognize superior service.”
  • “I totally agree with your observation about tipping 'creep'. Delivery crews now expecting tips, and clip a $20 bill to their clip board as a very visual hint. System not right when a frontline employee is tipped and earns way more than their manager, who has much more responsibility. Tipping moved from 10% to 15% to 20%. Servers often forget to look at the overall package and instead get upset about one table and their tip..” 
  • “Tipped Incented Employees need to be trained specifically on how to earn tips and realize it should not be expected if the service is poor, if the service is exemplary - the tips will come! “
  • “it's wrong when companies make tipped employees "tip out" to other employees who don't have contact w. the customer”
  • “Servers have one of the hardest jobs out there, and many people don't know how little their hourly wage is. I believe every person should be required to work a job in the service industry in high school or college to learn a little compassion and become well rounded. I was raised to tip well, and I will teach my children the same. If I know someone is a poor tipper I definitely think less of them.”
  • “Tipping makes the giver feel as good as the receiver. That's my tip “

Craft House Founder and Director, Yvette Jong, contributes regularly to her HOTELS Magazine Blog titled, "The Good, the Bad and the Funky." Topics of discussion include all aspects of hospitality development, operations, branding, marketing, human resources, sustainability and much more.