Tipping: To ban or not?

Tipping: To ban or not? July 1, 2013

What do you think about tipping? What’s a better practice?


So I was thrilled to hear that New York City’s Sushi Yasuda recently decided to eliminate tipping altogether. Including gratuity for parties of six or more has already become relatively commonplace; in a few restaurants, like Thomas Keller’s Per Se and The French Laundry, it’s automatically added onto all checks. But Yasuda has gone one step further, dispensing with service as a separate line item — and implicitly, an “extra” — and folding it into their prices as a cost of doing business, along with the rent, and electricity, and ingredients.

If I had my way, we’d take this idea to its logical conclusion and get rid of the practice of tipping altogether. Just outlaw it….

6. Smart people have been trying to end the tipping practice for a century

Backlashes against the tipping practice are not new. There was an anti-tipping movement at the beginning of the 20th century amongst Americans who saw it as an aristocratic holdover contrary to the country’s democratic ideals. Between 1909 and 1915 six states passed anti-tipping laws, all of which were repealed by the mid-1920’s as unenforceable or potentially unconstitutional. Samuel Gompers, who founded the AFL, was one political figure notably outspoken against tipping as promoting detrimental class distinctions.

But despite all this, the country as a whole has been loath to abandon the tipping convention. If knowing all of the above, you still balk at the idea of a service charge being rolled into the cost of your meal, maybe you should ask yourself why this is. Are you unwilling to participate in what a restaurant judges to be the fair, market-rate compensation for its employees? Do you think that you are a pawn in a nefarious plot by management to grossly over-reward servers, those men and women who are on their feet for eight hours, ferrying your drinks and foods to and fro? Do you believe that you are in a better position than the restaurant manager to motivate and evaluate his or her staff and make the complicated decisions about compensation and employment?

If yes, can I march into your office and adjust your pay depending on how well you do in our meeting? Or — more accurately — depending on your skin color, your breast size, or your age? Well, of course not, is the answer to that one. Because that would be barbaric.

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  • The problem I have is that I assume that if you have an automatic tipping rule, or that tipping is banned, that the owner will end up taking a cut of the tip.

  • metanoia

    Let me begin with a disclaimer. I am a very good tipper by anyone’s measure. When I get a good server, I let them know in word and deed that I appreciate their proper and able attention. Here is the problem I have. It doesn’t cost anymore to serve a $6 hamburger than it does to serve a $40 steak. Why percentages? I understand that waitstaff will have a problem with me even suggesting to do away with percentages, but I compensate two ways. First I don’t eat at overpriced restaurants, even on special occasions. And second, I give according to the servers service, period. I long ago quit being intimidated by the suggested 18-20% that is expected by servers. If I give less or more, in my estimation it is deserved. If the server is a good one, I hope (s)he catches the hint. If (s)he is a bad one, I hope they catch the hint also. My expectations are simple. Cleanliness, promptness, and getting my meal the way I requested it. A smile, and occasional checking in, is also appreciated, but isn’t a deal breaker.

  • Cut required tips, pay the workers full compensation for their work (because sometimes good servers just get bad, lazy, or forgetful customers who don’t tip), and let tipping be a bonus to exceptional servers, not an obligation regardless of service quality.

  • Ann

    I would rather they just build in tip to the cost of the food and charge what it actually costs. I tip 20% no matter what… I would be embarrassed to walk away, even from a “bad” server, without leaving a tip. It’s just kind of expected. But it’s a pain figuring it out each time… just charge me the cost of my meal. I’ll happily pay it.

  • KentonS

    I too say let’s get rid of the practice.

    I was recently swayed on this by a Freakonomics podcast on the subject. (A lot of the material overlaps with the Esquire article, and Michael Lynn is interviewed.)


  • Phil Miller

    Freakanomics did a podcast on this a few weeks ago: http://www.freakonomics.com/2013/06/03/should-tipping-be-banned-a-new-freakonomics-radio-podcast/

    They come to the conclusion that tipping is pretty much something that should be stopped. The interesting part on the show is when they talk to an employment law expert. He thinks that it won’t be long until someone brings a case against tipping by showing it to be a discriminatory practice. Multiple studies have shown that the people who earn the biggest are not the ones who provide the best service. They’re the ones who are good looking, essentially. So if you’re a blond haired, big-breasted white server, you’re almost guaranteed to make more than an African American server. It’s discriminatory at its core.

    Personally, the thing that bugs me about tipping is that it seems to be creeping into more and more aspects of the service industry everyday. Why, for instance, am I expected to leave for a haircut? The price I pay is for the service of getting my haircut. It just seems odd that I’m expected to pay something additional to that price for the service that I was already paying for. I will tip the girl who cuts my hair, though, because I want to be generous, but it just seems weird.

  • I see tipping as a way to demonstrate generosity and grace–I don’t even do it as a reward for good service anymore because I figure the bad service I might receive could have been someone experiencing a very bad day. (Some might argue such is a bad practice–that’s fine if one feels that way…but I will not change my practice to others’ view of bad practice.)

    The only way I would favor banning tipping is if I knew the serving staff were being adequately compensated for their work. In many states employers are not required to pay help staff even minimum wage. I know this is the case in my home state because my daughter has worked in food service.

  • Adam

    I would say the first step is to ban the practice of paying servers less than minimum wage. Once they’re on the same wage system as everyone else I think tipping will get more sensible.

  • SteveSherwood

    I agree. I believe in over-tipping whenever possible as both an act of Christian generosity and Christian p.r.. It is tragic that wait staff invariably say the worst shifts to work are Sundays after church because Christians are awful tippers. It’s so easy to bless someone at the cost of just a couple dollars.

  • Terry

    Adam, come to Oregon. We have a higher than Federal minimum wage, $8.95 an hour, with no less than minimum for food servers. So, as a restaurant owner I pay 16-year old kids working their first job $8.95 an hour, plus tips. In Oregon, restaurants have a terrible time surviving because of the wage structure. Harder still, I think, is trying to pay the 30-year old with five years of experience, who also has a family, what might actually be commensurate with their experience–part of that being a result of what their 16-year old counterpart earns.

    Interestingly, I have 30s single parents earning these wages, and working hard, and 18-year olds earning these ages who constantly complain about their being worth more. And, actually, both make more than me, the owner, who is fortunate to have three jobs so I can support my family. It’s not an easy hill.

    Being in the restaurant business I choose to be a generous tipper where I can, though we rarely dine out; I wish that tipping were not an expectation.

  • danaames

    This is essentially how it is in Europe.

    The first thing to do is pay servers a living wage.


  • KW

    Before we pass judgment on a well-established, deeply entrenched practice in the food industry, I think it best for someone to walk a mile in the shoes of a member of that industry.

    So I have worked in the food industry for three different establishments on and off for the last 9 years. And I think that tipping is a microcosm of economics in itself. With voluntary tipping, there is, generally speaking, a higher motivation for the serving staff to do well. No matter what someone orders, be it a salad or a steak, I was driven to make as much money as possible. So I put in 100% for every table, whether they were large spenders or not. I gave them a great experience. I developed a set of regulars who came back to sit at my tables and requested me as a server because I did such a great job. It was crushing when I performed well for a table and they walked off without tipping me at all. But whatever I was given, I was thankful for. And the serving staff was required to share some of their tips with auxiliary staff, such as hosts, bartenders, expeditor/kitchen manager (or quality assurance, the last person to look over the food before sending it out of the kitchen), and bussers. The worker being worthy of his or her hire and using my earthly resources to gain heavenly friends, I would give them more of a share of my tips so that they would work harder for me as well. The more money I made, the more I shared with those who helped me. And they were motivated to help me more than the other server who would stiff them. There were lazy servers who only wanted their $100 so they can turn around and get drunk with it. That’s fine. I would take the tables they don’t want and make my $150 to pay for rent and tuition. So if the idea is rolling into the sales cost of the menu items a commission to the individual server who sells the item, then I think I can be okay with that since the principle of upselling means a guest wishing to tip the standard 15% will tip more. There would still be motivation for the server to do well in that system.

    Contrast that to if the tip is rolled into the sales price of a menu item, and that commission goes into a pool shared by all servers employed. The server who sells steaks and bottles of wine will earn the same as the server who sells appetizers and soda. Tell me if you want to run a sales force like that where the person who sells one car gets the exact same amount as the sales person of the year who sold a hundred cars. If the pool is shared, I can guarantee that servers won’t work as hard. Many of them don’t care about alleged class distinctions, they only care about working hard and earning a buck in order to pursue their goals. The parallel is getting a raise at a workplace. Those who perform better deserve more wages. The distinction is that the server doesn’t really work for the restaurant, but for each individual table. Mediocre service means mediocre pay, doesn’t it? Excellent service means excellent pay, doesn’t it? But the idea of a tip pool is hazardous for the health of the workforce. The superior server will be less motivated, for his or her reward is the same as the slacker. How would a manager know which servers are better than others? As an assistant manager, I can tell you that it is very difficult. So it comes down to trusting the individual tables to assess that. Those who are better servers will in the long run earn more than those who are mediocre. Those who are bad servers will obtain enough complaints to be fired.

    By the way, I can guarantee that some of the worst tippers and rudest guests are the post-church crowd on Sunday afternoons and evenings. The restaurant culture I am acquainted with thinks of us as cheap, demeaning, and hypocritical rather than warm, charitable, and pleasant. I have served many a fellow Christian–with crosses around their necks, Bibles in tow–who were needy, picky, impossible to please, and dehumanizing. Whether you agree with tipping or not, I assure you that servers are watching Christians carefully. Imagine if you tipped a good server 20% instead of the standard 15% and develop a rapport with him or her, that they come to believe that those Christian folks are nice and generous. And they come to see Christianity as attractive, for it transformed you to being a person who values the hard work of the other, and then you shared the Gospel…

    I will end by a reminder that before one passes judgment on the industry, one should walk a mile in their shoes. If you think a restaurant is crazy for automatically charging a large party service fee, consider how difficult it is to attend to all 10 of your friends and you. Were you all demanding? Were you all critical? Were you all snappy? If you and your party are not, God bless you. But imagine getting several tables like that throughout a night with no increase in pay at all.

  • Adam

    Terry, I’m not sure what you’re trying to say here. Where I am (the midwest) servers are paid some where between $2 and $4.25 an hour. Employers are allowed to do this because they claim the servers make up the difference in tips. This doesn’t always happen so many servers are actually making less than minimum wage. Therefore $8.95 + tips sounds a whole lot better than $2 + tips.

    All I’m saying is that banning this practice is a first step towards making more sense of the whole system.

  • Terry

    Adam, I could be saying a number of things I guess, among them that banning the lower wage practice may solve some problems, but creates others. While in the Midwest my family earned those pitiful wages, so I do know what you mean.

  • Phil Miller

    The problem is that numerous studies have shown that the relationship between what people would call good service and the collection of good tips is pretty weak. Bad waiters and waitresses, it seems, don’t get punished as much as we think they would for providing bad service. There are studies, however, that show that the amount a waiter or waitress is tipped depends on things that are beyond their control – their race, their eye and hair color, and other things. Essentially people who are better looking will get more tips. It’s not exactly a meritocracy.

  • Barb

    I think I would still tip–food service workers are the lowest paid group of workers in the country.

  • Would probably be a good idea. Most waiters/waitresses say that religious tippers are the stingiest. Once heard a sermon where the pastor said something like: If you are a cheap tipper please do not pray before you eat and give the rest of us a bad name. ツ

  • Jeff Moulton

    For the average waiter, eliminating tips probably would help them. But the “average” commission worker changes jobs a lot, always hoping to find the place where they can make just a bit more money. For the above average waiter, and not all that above average, they will probably do better keeping tips. When I left youth ministry and took a job waiting tables, it represented a raise, even factoring in the loss of health insurance and other benefits.

    I am confident, even now in my mid-40s, that I can walk into any restaurant, strap on an apron, and make more money off of my tables with tips than any restaurant owner is going to be willing to pay me in salary / commission.

  • Susan_G1

    I have always been against tipping philosophically. However, having worked as a waitress (and a bartender!), knowing how hard we worked and how vastly underpaid we were, I have always been a generous tipper, except when the service was unforgivably bad.

    Restauranteurs have claimed that paying wait staff decent wages would mean meal prices would soar out of sight. Nonsense. Instead they want us to pay their employees. I have always disliked this.

    Ideally wait staff should be paid good wages. If the service is exceptional, we have the option of tipping extra. But as it is, it is not sufficiently merit-based. As others have mentioned, biases play a part, as well as how well the meal is prepared and the level of alcohol that’s been imbibed. Also, what kind of restaurant you eat at matters. I hate walking into a serve yourself type of eatery and seeing a Tip Jar at the cash register.

  • metanoia

    I don’t know of a single verifiable study that proves that Christians are any worse tippers than the general public. There is plenty of “anecdotal” evidence, but I’d like to see a factual study if anyone knows of one.

  • metanoia

    If you were serving my table, there is a very good chance I would tip you above the standard 20%.

  • SteveSherwood

    My Christian friends, and now, students at the Christian school where I teach, who have served as wait staff claim it’s true. That’s still anecdotal, but for me, it’s directly so and not “urban myth” heard 3rd or 4th hand. What makes you doubt its veracity?

  • Rev. Mark Smith

    I’d be for ending tipping. And adding a service charge would be out of the question. It should be added into the cost of doing business. That actually mean that servers could at least make minimum wage.

  • Jeremy B.

    No one’s done a study. My sisters were both servers and hated church crowds because they never tipped. My dad gave sermons about generosity and representing the kingdom at least twice a year because he talked regularly to the restaurant owners around the church who were frustrated with being unable to find wait staff that were willing to work on Sundays due to the poor compensation despite the large crowds.

  • Trent DeJong

    Until we do ban tipping, Christians ought to be better tippers. Did you know that the worst shift in the restaurant biz is the Sunday lunch shift when all the Christians show up after church? Not good and we should change that: http://trentdejong.com/christian-tipping/

  • Andrew

    I think that there could be better practices out there than tipping but I don’t think that would work well in every situation. I think that on average, most tipped employees make more than minimum wage and also more than their employer would be willing to pay them by hour or a salary.

    Let’s also not forget that tipping isn’t only involved with food service. People should tip the person who carries their groceries, the person who cuts their hair, the valet, the bellmen, and many other people that I can’t think of right now.

    It is nice for the servers when a gratuity charge is added onto a bill because a lot of people don’t know how much they should tip. There is also nothing wrong with adding to the service charge. Usually it is around 18%. I always tip 20% for average service and more for better than average. If the server does a bad job I will tip less and leave a note why. I would also never dock a server for things beyond their control. Sometimes there is hair in the food, sometimes it is cooked wrong, sometimes the host/hostess puts too many people in their section at the same time, sometimes someone calls off, etc.

    I have been a valet/bellmen in Phoenix at nice resorts for 9 years now. Before that I wanted to be a chef and was working in a kitchen at a 4 star/award winning restaurant/resort making $11/hour and working a second job as a day-care cook in the mornings. When I decided I wanted to go to school to be a youth pastor, I moved out to the bellmen/valet at the resort so I could go to school full time. I made mostly tips and made more than both my previous jobs combined. (I never made it to be a full time youth pastor because the youth pastor at my church never left and I was his assistant for 6 years.) Now I’m still in the bellmen/valet job and a different resort making $60,000 a year. I’m going to start seminary in a few months because I want to eventually be a professor at a college or seminary but I’m scared that I won’t even find a job making what I make now even if I pursue a doctorate.

    I support myself, my wife, and 2 kids and I think tipping should stay. The guys that I work with and I provide great service to all the guest that come to the resort because our livelihood depends on it and that is why people come back to the same place; it’s because of the people that work there that give them great service and remember who they are.

    PS $5 is average for valet and $3-$5 per bag for a bellmen, just so you know 😉

  • Phil Miller

    I think your post brings up something that bugs me about the whole practice of tipping. It’s not that I begrudge paying someone for providing good service, and it’s not that I’m stingy. It’s just that whole practice of tipping is governed by these unwritten rules. OK, eating at a restaurant, we kind of know what we’re expected to tip, but even that has changed over the years. But with other things, I don’t really know what the expectation is.

    Valet parking is a good example. A lot of restaurants around here will put signs out advertising “free valet parking”. But it’s not really free, because the expectation is that you’ll tip the valet (and I think $5 to drive my car to and from a parking space is pretty steep, if I must be honest, but that’s another issue…).

    I would be much happier if we were all just honest with the price at the beginning of a transaction. If you want $5 to valet a car, put it on a sign, and if I think that’s too much I’ll go elsewhere. Don’t put a sign up that says “free”, and then complain if you get only $2 or $3. Unwritten rules are stupid. There, I said it.

    The other side of the generosity coin is stewardship. When planning a trip or something, it can be hard to foresee every incident where you’d be expected to give a tip. So I really don’t think it’s always a matter of being greedy to be hesitant about giving a big tip. It can be simple economics and not wanting to simply throw cash around haphazardly. O, and that brings up another thing… I hardly ever carry cash with me. Cash transactions are things that are becoming more and more outdated.

  • Josh T.

    I’m concerned that by eliminating tipping altogether, good servers like my wife will no longer be able to be paid well in serving positions. I guarantee that most restaurant owners are no different than fast food store owners; paying workers the bare minimum that is required will be the norm, and good performers will not be properly compensated. My wife (who is currently in a high-stress, low-wage management job at a fast food restaurant) is wanting to leave that business because the new owners make things difficult while paying managers barely higher than crew. As for normal sit-down restaurants, forget whether or not tipping has any effect on bad servers; that is not the issue… I guarantee that if tipping is outlawed, good servers will suffer, and that will mean fewer good servers remaining in that line of work because the pittance they’re paid won’t be worth the sweat and tears they endure–just like fast food.

  • RobS

    The cultural and social context is being thought out well by others.

    Let me just add this from the “pure salary” case: when the numbers become reported as a salary, it will show up on the W-2 and add to the FICA (social security) tax burden of the restaurant and employees. Also, there will be more federal & state tax withheld. To provide the material (cash) benefits, the new structure would have to overcome this burden.

  • In my thinking, a tip should be something extra added for exceptional service. It’s a bonus for a job that was especially well done. It should not be expected by default.

    That said, I do understand that under the current system, waiters and waitresses receive most of their pay from tips. Thus I always try to tip well. I just wish we were under a different system.

  • Pam Herbert

    One of the way that the Europeans outclass us Yanks is in this area of tipping. It is considered bad manners to tip in Europe. They have a lot to teach us. Until then, we need to do the right thing. A group of us from work go to breakfast quarterly and all I hear is complaining about the service. There are 10 of us and we are not the server’s only table. But they expect to be treated as such. I usually ended really over tipping to make up for their bad behavior. And, yes, Christians are the worst patrons. People, they dread seeing us come in on a Sunday morning. At every restaurant I frequent regularly, the servers fight over me because they know that I will call them by name (they are human, remember), take the time to chat with them (I often get too much info but that is better than none), treat them with respect and over tip them. I have actually had servers chase me down in the parking lot thinking my tip was a mistake. I drive out faster now. Seriously, be Jesus to these people. They are just that, people not machines. Treat them as such.

  • Andrew

    I understand exactly where you are coming from. One of the reasons why I wrote that at the end is because a lot of people don’t know how to tip or that they should. I am in that situation every time I get coffee. Should I tip or not? I don’t tip at McDonalds. What makes Starbucks different? I usually just give my change because I don’t know what else to do. I’ve never asked a barista about it.

    I did write average. $2-$3 isn’t bad and I would never complain or give bad service even if I got $1. I do hate the word free. I like complimentary instead. Where I work, we don’t have a sign or charge. But places that have those are telling you that they don’t have a charge for valet. They only work on tips. Some places do have a charge and you should tip on top of that. It’s also not impolite to ask the valet (if there is a charge) if they get any of that money so you can know how much to tip.

    About not carrying cash. There is always an ATM. Also, a lot of time you can just self park. You don’t always have to valet. If someone tells me they don’t have any cash, I’ll let them know where to park themselves. It’s all about what you want. If it’s a far walk to the entrance from self parking and you value saving a 5 minute walk (especially if people in your party have high heals on), $5 isn’t that bad for the service. Even though it may be a short run to your car for the valet, it could have saved you a lot of time and energy walking.

  • metanoia

    My own anecdotal evidence. I don’t know of a single friend that I’ve shared a table with who was a bad tipper. The only exception that comes close was an outing with a group of about 30 seniors who insisted on individual checks and pulled out calculators to give the exact percentage down to the penny that they wanted to give. But these were Depression era seniors who took careful stock of every penny they spent. Anecdotal evidence is hard to prove or disprove. I think that because it is an after church Sunday phenomenon that it highlights the presence of Christians and especially the percentage who may be lousy tippers. But I would be willing to bet that if 1000 patrons of a restaurant were studied without knowing if they were Christians or not, on a day that wasn’t Sunday, and the tips they gave were put in a graph, I doubt that the numbers would be any different for Christians or non-Christians. I think it’s an urban myth until proven empirically otherwise.

  • BradK

    Just to quibble a bit, 20% may be your standard tip, but it is not the overall standard, which is 15% as KW mentioned. Nitpicking I know, but throughout most of my life 15% has been the standard restaurant tip. Over the last few years there seems to be some sort of effort to change that standard to some higher percentage. Not sure I understand why since as a percentage as costs and prices go up, so does the amount. No need for a new standard.

    I tend to tip in the 18% to 25% range, but don’t like feeling “pressured” by society to leave more than 15%. 😉

  • Gene

    The problem for me isn’t the concept of tipping per se, it is how big the circle of those who are “supposed” to be tipped has become and how much some people “expect” for what is really just average (or even sub par) service. Not just the waitress, but the valet, doorman, maitre’ de, coat check and busboy are all to be tipped. If you are going to dinner and the theater in a city, add to that the porter, maid and taxi driver. Get a pizza for your kids who are at home with the sitter and there are two more people (even though you’re already paying the sitter).

    And even if we are just talking about the role of the waitstaff, explain to me why it is a percentage of the bill. Explain to me why it is it that the waiters/waitresses who brings me my $15 steak, my $30 lobster, and my $5 hamburger steak should be compensated at three different rates, or why I’m tipping the person who refills my water glass nothing and my glass of house wine a fortune?

    Besides, I’ve noticed that many of those who most scream that they want tips are only willing to tip their own profession. I’m a professional ski instructor in season. It too is a service occupation, that depends on tips if you’re going to make a living at it. We don’t really expect to make a living from the salary we get from the ski school, which charges each student a set amount for the lesson per individual, while the instructor gets the same amount whether we have 2 or 15 in the class. And we take our job seriously. Most instructors I know, are like me and will take a couple of extra runs after the class is over to help those who are still struggling, if any, and we do that entirely gratis. On top of that, unlike some other professions, ski instructors are certified and go through significant trainig to do their job. We’re not just some schmuck who knows how to ski but nothing about teaching. I’m actually as skilled at teaching in my profession as any classroom teacher. In 5 years, and hundreds of students, I’ve yet to have a single student that I was unable to teach how to ski well enough to at least execute the bunny hill without falling, and begin to make turns so they can try the more advanced beginner runs; most are skiing blue runs before the end of the day. And for all of this, what do we typically get paid at my resort? We get paid a flat rate of 1 hour minimum wage for a one hour group lesson — and nothing at all if we don’t have a lesson. On a slow day with a full staff present, I might work two lessons with 5 or 6 students in them each. That represents a couple of hundred for the ski hill, but less than $20 for me. Not exactly something one can live on, and in our part of the country no ski instructor does it to make a living. We do it for the love of skiing and passing it on to new generations. Of helping all those other service providers who work for tips find a new and healthy recreational pastime. But do they remember us, like they ask for us to remember them? About 1 in 50 do. Yep, they spend hundreds of dollars to drive to the resort, get a night’s lodging, buy lift ticket, rent equipment (many even buying new clothes), and are smart enough to take a lesson from a professional rather than being taught by a well-meaning but unqualified friend. But at the end of the day, you know who is the least likely to remember us with a gratuity? The waitress you just told to keep the change from the $20 you used to pay for your $10 meal.