Thoughts on Tipping

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright May 2013


Tipping is an example of a good intention getting twisted into something quite different as it gets institutionalized. The ramifications of this twisting are the topic of this essay. My examples will center on restaurant tipping in the US.


When I was a teenager in the 1960's, and first became aware of tipping, my parents explained that it was a reward for exceptional service. Even as a teenager that explanation of tipping left me head scratching -- head scratching in much the same way Genesis did as an explanation for how the world was created. I learned about both at about the same time, and in both cases the real world just didn't match what I was being told at all! Example: If you got average service and walked away without tipping... Whoa! My experience even at that young age indicated that things had changed a lot from when that parental explanation may have made sense.

Tipping practices haven't gotten any more rational since then. The opposite has happened: They have become more firmly ritualized, more pervasive, and more disconnected than ever from the good intention of rewarding exceptional performance.

Why is this a problem? It's a problem because it is confusing, disenfranchising, and no longer fulfills the good intention that originated the practice. In sum, it's expensive and not accomplishing its goal.

Problem details

[Note once again that I'm using restaurant tipping in the US as my example, but the problems apply to many forms.]


The confusion centers on the questions "Who's the boss?" and "How much should I pay?" The who's the boss issue is that the server is hired by the restaurant manager, but paid mostly by the customers' tips. The server is, in reality, leasing his or her tables from the restaurant manager and getting paid by tips to service them. So... who's the boss? Manager or customer? This is why hostesses directing customers to tables are so pervasive in the US, those hostesses are organizing who gets the tips.

The confusion spreads further: The server is only the tip of the service-providing iceberg. There are cooks, busboys, cleaners, and so on. Should the tip be spread among them as well? If so, what's the difference between tip paying and price paying? As tipping becomes expected and a large percentage of the price, it means the management is loosing control over who gets paid what. This makes for a confusing situation, which means it's real easy for all staff members to get upset over pay issues.

The servers don't help the situation when they promote higher tip rates by complaining to customers, "This place doesn't pay me diddly, so be sure you tip, and tip well."

The rational response to that complaint is: "Of course the manager doesn't pay you diddly! They know we customers are tipping! And you knew it too when you took this server position!" In situations where customers are not tipping, such as at a grocery store, the managers pay everyone appropriately.

I know it's a painful concept, servers, but let's get the cause and effect in the right order.

The emotional response is quite different from the rational response. It is for the customer to sympathize and add a bit more -- tip inflation. Over the decades that I've been restauranting the expected tip rate has gone from 5 to 18 percent, and I hear that some servers in the San Francisco area are promoting 25 percent.


The restaurant staff is a team, but the servers are getting treated by the customers as if they are prima donnas. This is hard on team spirit.

What happened to the good intention?

Meanwhile, back at the good intention... this has been completely lost. Customers are obligated to pay tips, which means there's no feeling of rewarding exceptional service connected with the process any more, on either side. Today's tipping is more like a server-enforced tax than a grateful customer reward.

What's the solution?

Tipping strokes the help-the-needy instinct. It's being powered by the same instinct that makes roadside beggars and down-on-their-luck young prostitutes attractive as gift receivers. Because it's instinct powered, and now widely taught, the solution I have come up with to solve the unhappy effects noted above is to keep the form of tipping, but change how the money collected is distributed.

Instead of going only to the server, or whomever takes the money out of the tip jar, the money should be pooled as an employee bonus fund and distributed to all staff members in proportion to their regular pay. This scheme needs to be pledged to by the employees -- seriously pledged to. If a customer gives them something, "Just for you," they can accept it, but they must put it into the fund just like all other tipping. The fund gets gets regularly distributed to all employees in direct proportion to what each employee gets as take-home pay.

With this scheme tipping becomes an incentive bonus for the whole team, and, yes, pretty much the same as price paying.

Optional is announcing this sharing arrangement to the customers. The goal of the announcing is to make the tipping look irrelevant, so it can decline.

In my idyllic thoughts on this, I envision a menu that says:


(the gratuity, should you choose to pay one, is 10%)

Item Price when paying a tip Price when not tipping
Salad $10 $11


With this scheme the tippers can get their warm, fuzzies, and the management can get back in control of paying their employees. This keeps things simple, increases enfranchisement, and reduces confusion.

The casualty is rewarding exceptional service. ...but, then again, that concept was already quite dead anyway.

Update: Here is a 29 Jul 13 blog by Jay, a hipster restaurant owner in San Diego, on his experiences with tipping, Observations From A Tipless Restaurant, Part 1:, which goes into detail about what difference it has made in his restaurant-running experience.

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