Last week, a restaurant guest in Colts Neck, New Jersey left his waitress a 74-cent tip on a $119.26 check. Somehow, a New Jersey state senator obtained a photo of the signed receipt and shared the unedited image on Twitter. The intent of this blog post is not to debate the merits of publically shaming restaurant guests (you shouldn’t), but rather to explore the morality of punishing servers by withholding tips – essentially reducing their wages – due to an impression of poor product and/or service quality.
My position is that poor tipping in this culture is inexcusable. Even average service warrants a minimum 15% tip. Personally, I start at 15% and go up from there to 20% or more based on the service quality. It’s not that servers are entitled to exceptional gratuities based on unremarkable service. Exceptional gratuities are reserved for those servers who check all the boxes, leaving guests with a lasting positive impression. At issue is that servers are often paid at or below minimum wage with the expectation that tips will close the gap between their hourly rate and a living wage, which may be twice their hourly wage rate.
It’s simply not fair to arbitrarily withhold a server’s compensation because a handful of expectations were not met. Let’s say that you and a guest dined out. Although you both enjoyed your meals, you noticed certain lapses throughout the evening: the drink orders took longer than expected, side plates were not cleared, water was not replenished expeditiously, and you had to wait an inordinate amount of time for your check. Rather than conveying your disappointment in the size of her tip, what if you were to give the server the benefit of the doubt?
In truth, there are many variables that go into a dining experience that are beyond the control of the server:
- Food quality/preparation
- Support staff (busser, runner, bartender)
- Kitchen staff (chef, cook, prep, dishwasher)
- Staffing levels (kitchen and on the floor)
- Technical issues (oven, grill, dish machine, POS system, etc.)
- Environment (noise, temperature, lighting, etc.)
Servers shouldn’t be held accountable for issues that are beyond their control and they certainly shouldn’t be punished by having earned tips withheld. Maybe the scheduling manager is at fault, or two servers called out, or the kitchen (which most diners can’t see) is in disarray.
Or perhaps the service lapses are the sole responsibility of an aloof server. Consider why the server might be having an off day: Maybe she’s preoccupied with a sick child, a strained relationship, personal finances, or a health issue. The point is that you don’t know what’s going on in her life. And if it is a looming or past-due bill, you haven’t helped by stiffing her.
Have you ever had a service lapse in your job role? Just be thankful that your own compensation isn’t subject to the whims of others based on a 45-90-minute snapshot of your performance. Maybe you were slow to respond to a client request or missed a project deadline, disappointing a colleague. Does that warrant docking your pay by 15%? Could you imagine being reported to human resources for a service failure and having 15% of your compensation withheld? Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? It’s about as ridiculous as a 74-cent tip on a $119.26 check.
Here’s the thing: I’m not suggesting that you lower your service standards or endure subpar dining experiences. If you were disappointed, then don’t return. There’s no shortage of restaurants. Let the free market determine which restaurants will thrive and which will shutter. If you choose, leave a detailed Yelp review to help them improve. But, for heaven’s sake, leave your server a minimum 15% tip.