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Oct 06 2013

Power tipping

I have previously railed against the practice of tipping, seeing it as something that encourages servile behavior and is demeaning. It seems to me to be a relic of the feudal system in which the nobility acted patronizingly towards the peasantry by giving them gifts in exchange for acting obsequiously towards them. So I was pleased to see that some restaurants are adopting a no-tipping policy and paying their employees a living wage, by either raising their menu prices and/or adding a service charge automatically.

You would think that people would either welcome this move or be indifferent. What I did not expect was that people would actually be angered by being forbidden to tip the wait staff.

Jay Porter used to run two similar restaurants, one of which ran on traditional lines and the other, called The Linkery, that had a no-tipping policy, so he had a sort of natural experiment on the effects of tipping. He says that the no-tipping restaurant resulted in customers getting better service, employees being happier and staying longer, and making more money.

But he said that he would very angry reactions from some customers at The Linkery because they were not allowed to tip and he says that this reveals an interesting insight into the psychology of people.

The Linkery’s most transgressive act was not in implementing a service charge. Our most transgressive act was refusing to allow our guests to pay our servers anything more beyond the service charge — this is where the angry came out. A certain small number of very vocal men (and it was always men who were vocal about it) resented that we were not letting them try to exercise additional control over our team members. This was true even though compelling research has shown that servers do not adjust quality of service as a result of tips; instead the idea that the restaurant was not offering our servers up as objects of control, was heresy. For these people, the primary service they wanted from the restaurant was the opportunity to pay for favors from the server — much like the patron at a strip club pays the club for the opportunity to dangle bills in front a dancer for individual attention. The idea that a restaurant could legitimately want to be in a different business than a strip club, was not an idea these guests could countenance.

Having a sister restaurant that used the traditional model was helpful in evaluating this — at our second restaurant, for instance, we could never achieve a consistently high quality of service. We believed the block came from the sense that, once the guest delivers a tip, the quality of service has been validated — even though studies clearly show that, across a large sample, guests tip basically the same regardless of quality of service.

In retrospect, I should not have been surprised by this at all. After all, it is consistent with the feudal model where people get a sense of power and control by bestowing ‘gifts’ on those who have to strive to gain their favor, and that by doing so they believe that they are served better than other people.

His other point that guests tip pretty much the same regardless of the quality of service is true for me. I have never ‘punished’ a server for perceived poor service by reducing the tip. But then, I have found wait staff to be unfailingly courteous and so the thought never even came up. I cannot imagine what a server would have to do to merit such an action on my part.

I have sometimes given a larger tip because I felt that we occupied a table longer than I felt we were entitled to but that was not a extra reward for good service. It was to partially make up for the loss the server had from not being able to serve another customer at our table.

7 comments

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  1. 1
    Woo_Monster, Sniffer of Starfarts

    I have never ‘punished’ a server for perceived poor service by reducing the tip. But then, I have found wait staff to be unfailingly courteous and so the thought never even came up. I cannot imagine what a server would have to do to merit such an action on my part.

    Same here. I get pretty pissed when people suggest not tipping for various petty perceived slights that the wait-person caused. I get super pissed when people suggest not tipping on account of some factor that was clearly not the server’s fault, like them not coming around as often as liked (even though one can see that the restaurant is fucking busy as hell and understaffed). Bah!

    Good post, Mano.

  2. 2
    Marcus Ranum

    I usually tip, and do so heavily. I know a lot of people who work service jobs and who get paid barely enough to survive. I’m happy to give them some money that doesn’t show up on their taxes. And I never use it as a weapon. If I am annoyed enough by poor service to take action, I write a letter to the manager – because often the problem is not the server, it’s a breakdown elsewhere in the establishment. I hate seeing the wait-staff get punished when the kitchen gets buried.

  3. 3
    Matt G

    I am a very polite person anyway, but I go out of my way to be courteous to waitstaff. I have seen how rude patrons can be, and want to shift the balance. I err on the side of over-tipping.

  4. 4
    Johnny Vector

    I’ve been starting at 20% and rounding up for a long time; I recently came to the conclusion that I should base my tip on what I would have paid if I had had a “typical” meal at the restaurant. Sometimes I’m not that hungry and don’t feel like having any alcohol, so I order an appetizer and nothing to drink. Now my bill is half what it would normally be, but the server has to work just as hard. So I now take what I would have ordered if I were hungry and assume a beer or glass of wine, and tip based on what that would have cost.

    I would much prefer that the servers just get paid a living wage in the first place.

  5. 5
    Pen

    I would actively support restaurants where you don’t tip. I have been really concerned that staff aren’t guaranteed a proper wage, though the quotes suggest it does work out. But I also see the power thing from the other point of view. I would rather think of the server as someone who happens to be doing a job and with whom our roles could be reversed in some other situation. Also, I’m really out to socialise with my friends or relax. I want the servers to facilitate that, not massage my ego for me. Unfortunately, the tipping culture gives them a need to secure attention. In Europe, where tipping isn’t as intensively practiced, service is expected to be discreet, servers just do their job, get paid and that’s it.

  6. 6
    Marcus Ranum

    I think it would be interesting if an establishment had signs (or notes on the menu) posted, which read:
    “We pay our workers a good wage – higher than is typical for this area, and well above minimum wage. We offer a retirement plan and medical benefits. Consequently, our prices are also higher than is typical for this area; we hope you are willing to support those who work so hard for your comfort. Tipping, in this establishment, is unnecessary.”

  7. 7
    M can help you with that.

    I miss The Linkery. The food was good, and the waitstaff were usually great — the living wage probably didn’t hurt the latter.

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