Tipping. More American than baseball
Is tipping mandatory? Does it benefit the worker? Does it produce a better service for the customer? Or is it all just an elaborate social and economic charade aimed at keeping Service industry wages and benefits low?
You can take your average, common or garden Brit and transplant them into any state in America from New York to Alaska and they will generally adapt with ease. We share a common language, listen to the same music, eat the same food and laugh at similar things. Hell, we can even stomach going to a baseball game occasionally and are prepared to accept that basketball is a sport of athletic skill, not of random genetics. But there is one social and economic convention that terrifies us. Tipping. More especially Is tipping mandatory?
You see in Britain we stick to the old-fashioned notion that workers should be paid a living wage for their labour and not be held hostage to the financial whims of the patrons they are serving. As a Nation, we simply don’t tip. If there is a service charge it is invariably added to the bill automatically. 12. Per. Cent. Of. The. Total. Bill. Period. It’s like a tax. We pay it even if we see you spit in our soup. It is not an option. It is not personal interaction. Otherwise, we tip nothing. Nada. Zilch.
Not just a warped social convention an economic disaster too
In America, you have to have an algorithm to work out what to tip. I have never received the cheque from an American restaurant without breaking into a sweat. If I tip 10 per cent will I look cheap? If I tip 20 will I be considered a show-off? What if the service sucked and I tip nothing? Will the waiter follow me out with a loaded Smith and Wesson? Tipping in America is part Art part Science. I once took a colleague to lunch and said: “I will pay the bill”. “Ok,” he chimed in” in which case I will pay the tip”. The tip he gave was more than the bill. Apparently, this is not an uncommon social courtesy in America.
But this is more than an issue of making the occasional “Limey” feel uncomfortable. It is an iniquitous system of payment for workers who do long, tedious work with few long-term career prospects. Most of all it impoverishes and cheapens not only the American labour market but American society too. I am always baffled by the reasons some Americans give for supporting tipping. Most of them make no economic or social sense to me, so let’s break them down.
1 Is tipping mandatory?
I often hear from apologists “tipping is not mandatory”. Yeh right! In New York where I live, even the muggers expect a gratuity. The code of etiquette around tipping has evolved and become more pernicious over time. For table service in a restaurant, the 10 per cent tip that was the 1970s norm has increased to a standard 20 per cent today. Some even suggest an addition “for exceptional service “on top of that. Recently in Vegas, I was astonished to see the following notice at the Bellagio, attempting to justify its upcharge: “For your convenience, a 20% service charge will be added to each spa and salon service received. A portion of the service charge is dispersed to the spa and salon staff members who served you and the remainder is an administrative fee. Additional gratuities are at your discretion.” An administration fee on a gratuity? Get out of here!
We’re tipping more money, and for more services, than we ever used to. It’s a phenomenon called “tip creep” where social pressure encourages us to tip for counter-service interactions where a tip was formerly not compulsory. I hate it because it’s an obligation masquerading as an option
2 Tipping is a personal face to face way of saying thank you to your server for excellence.
Nope. This is becoming less and less the norm. Walk into any chain coffee shop and pay with your card and the 2-minute transaction will be ended by the cashier swiping the credit card and whirling the screen of their iPad sales device around to face the customer. “Add a tip,” the screen will command, listing three options: $1, $2 or $3. Gee thanks for that personalized good service. Proliferating all over America are tablet-based point-of-sale systems that force the “tip” issue by presenting consumers with a slate of generous gratuity options before the transaction can be completed. Sure you can press “No gratuity” for your amazingly intimate thirty seconds barista interaction but that button always looks fingerprint-free to me.
3 Tips are the lifeblood of low-wage service industry workers, whose wages have remained stagnant for decades.
So pay them more. It is not rocket science. Wages remain low precisely because of tipping. Owners and Corporations love the tipping culture prevalent in America. They encourage it even. It allows them to get away with the kind of labour abuses that simply wouldn’t be accepted in Europe. “We pay below minimum wage here but Mary Lou takes home treble that in tips”. Sure. But for how long? Will tips pay for her sickness absence, her maternity leave, her pension? Some individual workers I don’t doubt do very well out of tipping. But as a class, service workers are all ultimately impoverished by it.
4 Everyone benefits from tipping even the back of house staff.
Ummm…That tip you just gave to the waitress. She may have to share it with the guys in the back you never see. Fair enough. But the white-collar manager? The owner/proprietor? Tip pooling is almost the norm in most service industries now. These arrangements usually involve restaurant servers and other workers who make tips and back-of-the-house workers who don’t. Yet this fine principal has sparked outrage from worker advocates who say the move has permitted management to essentially skim gratuities by participating in the pools themselves. If everyone gets a cut of the tip it defeats the object of it being a personalised “thank you” to one individual and becomes a corporate tax break. Does anyone remember Gordon Ramsey’s “Kitchen Nightmares” episode of “Amy’s Baking Company”? Imagine that abusive tipping procedure on an industrial and nationwide scale.
5 Tipping improves customer service.
There is no doubt that service standards are better in the USA than in Britain. But is tipping the reason for it? “The customer is always right” is an American invention, and I have always believed the average restaurant service worker in the USA is infinitely better trained and happier in their work than their European counterparts who seem to think they are doing you a favour by allowing you to sit down in the establishment. However, over the years, I have noticed a marked degradation in service here. Some chain restaurants can’t wait to get you out of the door.
6 It brings all the staff together to work as a team for the benefit of the customer.
Foodservice is a team sport. The diner’s experience is the result of a vast and interconnected web of efforts But tipping has been the source of more worker discontent, caused more catfights and led to more firings than any other single work-related issue. Far from encouraging camaraderie, the worker above the person below them is always aghast at any suggestion of levelling of the playing field. A server will often bitch about how much a particular manager makes while making double what a cook makes, and get enraged if someone suggests “hey, maybe we should give everyone a living wage so everyone other than you and the managers don’t suffer.” The majority of the workers in a restaurant make less than both servers and managers on average. This is not an egalitarian method of rewarding your staff.
So what’s the answer? Corporate responsibility anyone?
Well, I have been told it’s complicated. Not to me, it isn’t. Try this. Pay ALL your staff a living wage, sick leave, health and dental insurance and match fund their 401k pension contributions. Implement a profit share scheme to motivate your employees. Proudly announce on your service menu that “This is a non-tipping organisation because we care about our employee’s welfare”. Most Americans and even the odd tight-fisted “Brit” will happily pay a fixed extra fee per transaction to cover that. I suspect a lot of people would even actively seek these establishments out too, making it economically lucrative for the owners.
For A British take on American supermarkets read my blog http://www.englishmanlovesamerica.com/american-supermarkets-suck/