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A friend posted an interesting question on Facebook:

“What do you do when you have a regular who NEVER tips. He comes in at least once a week and pays with exact change. It’s not like he is a horribly rude guy, but seriously I don’t want to wait on you anymore. I make $4.86/hr you seriously can’t even spare a damn dollar. ughh.”

There were a lot of responses to this and, not surprisingly, they divided into two camps. The vast majority remarked that the server should say something to the customer because they only reason someone works in a restaurant is for tips. In contrast, the (tiny) minority said that that the server needed to shrug it off because that’s the nature of the service industry—a server should always do the best job she or he can do, regardless of the compensation. One of the commenters added that if the server was making less than minimum wage, the restaurant is required to make-up the difference, although, some cursory research shows this only applies to the work week, not any individual day.

There are two serious questions at the heart of this discussion; the first is the title of this post. Are customers obligated to pay tips? Strictly speaking, they are not. If there is no sign in the restaurant obligating customers to do so, tipping is purely voluntary. There is one price on the menu and that is what the law demands. However, in the United States, tipping is a well-established custom, and it would be silly to think it’s not expected. This means that, at best, not tipping is rude. It may even be mean. But it is not illegal. Is it moral?

Custom tells us that tipping is either a reward or a punishment. Servers should get the tip that they deserve, so, in theory, it is moral to withhold a tip if the service is bad. But even then, it’s not simple. Servers are denied tips for a slow kitchen or bad food, factors completely out of their control. Ultimately, the server is the restaurant’s face and is treated as such, but if this is the case then the issue isn’t whether the service is good but whether the restaurant experience as a whole is good. In other words, it is moral to deny a good server a tip if anything about the experience was bad. That may feel unfair, but it is the way it is in any business. No matter how good a phone company’s customer service is, I’m not going to use their phones if they can’t connect my call. Servers are members of a team and they rise and fall with everyone else.

But none of this deals with the scenario my friend posed, which is that there is a regular customer who keeps coming back, but never tips. Someone suggested the person may be poor, but it is just as possible that the person is cheap. There is no way to know unless the server asks (more on that in a second). But why is the reason relevant? The cashier at the grocery store doesn’t ask me how I earned my money and then adjusts the price of milk because of it. Neither does anyone else. How people get their money or how much money they have is irrelevant. That’s the whole point of money; it speaks for itself. A price is a price is a price. Again, it may be the case that customer is being rude or mean, but it is unclear that they are being immoral.

I would add, incidentally, that one relevant indicator is how this customers treats the server. Are they easy going? Are they polite? Maybe how they treat the server as a person is more important than how much they pays. Again, there is no way to know, but I’m not sure their reasons are any of the server’s business.

This leads to the second question: should the server say something to the customer? The answer, it seems, rests on the earlier observation that the server is the face of the restaurant, and from the customer’s perspective, the server bringing it up is just another way that the restaurant is asking for more money. If the restaurant needs that, why not just raise the food prices? It seems to me that asking for more money is a sure way to lose a patron (and to get fired), but whether that’s true depends on the personalities involved. It’s a practical not a philosophical observation.

I think there is something else, too. If the server is allowed to ask for more money when they deserve it, aren’t they under an obligation to give back money they didn’t earn? I’m a chronic over-tipper, so shouldn’t the server refuse my money if the service wasn’t extraordinary? Philosophically, I don’t think one can have it both ways. Either the money is intrinsically tied to performance or it’s not.

I have much more to say, but this post is long enough, and I fully expect that it will get lots of comments. What is my answer, in the end? I think not tipping is sometimes deserved, it is sometimes stingy, it is sometimes rude, and it is sometimes mean, but it is never immoral. Salary is the responsibility of the restaurant, not the customer, and complaints or negotiations should stay behind the scenes where they belong.

27 comments on “Are restaurant customers obligated to tip their servers? (And if they don’t, should the server do something about it?) [Reader’s Question]

  1. River Song says:

    I do not tip as a general rule. As far as I'm concerned if you're doing your job I should not be expected to reward you for it. Good job, you're acting like an adult and working. Why should I tip you for this? On occasion I tip if the service has been particularly good and above average because in these cases the person should be rewarded, they are going above and beyond their average work load. People tell me that this is wrong, that not tipping is bad because people need the tips when working at a low paying job like a restaurant. But I've always failed to see how it becomes my responsibility that their employer does not adequately pay them.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Good luck returning to restaurants in the New York area!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. River: Would you be willing to pay a higher price on the menu if it meant you weren't expected to tip, or would you be inclined (all else being equal) to pick the cheapest restaurant?

    (Say hi to The Doctor, for us!)

  5. Could you explain that comment? It's pretty ambiguous and I don't know which side you fall on.

  6. Knovak says:

    As a tipped employee, this is the way I see it… In North Dakota (and 37 other states), employees are paid below the federal minimum wage ($4.86). I realize that there are a number of different ways to look at minimum wage, but the way I see it is that it represents the lowest socially acceptable compensation for an individual's labor. Which is to say that society at least attempts to recognize that there is a lower limit to the amount of money that an involved member of society (i.e. an employee) can earn, which would allow them to continue to survive as a member of that society.

    By placing the tipped wage below the minimum, the assumption then, is that the tipped wage is not adequate for the employee (as an employee) to survive as a member of the society. The only way this is acceptable is if there is a second assumption, which is that the tipped employee will make at least enough money in tips to bring their income to the lowest socially acceptable limit. If this is the case, then customers, if they recognize the tipped employee as doing their job as an employee, have an obligation to ensure that the employee is making at least the minimum wage. All this is to say that in 38 states, if a person is doing their job, then they should be getting tipped. In other countries like Canada the tipped wage is higher ( I don't' know the details) and this erases the obligation to tip (and based on what I've heard from servers' experience with Canadian customers in Grand Forks, this also erases the expectation of a tip, because Canadian rarely tip).

    Less importantly, there are two things to consider. First, tipped employees oftentimes have other duties (custodial, etc.) than serving customers, so they could be doing their job and not serving customers, in which case serving the customer is not simply their job, but is extra work. Secondly, tipped employees oftentimes serve multiple customers, so if they have to work to serve the non-tipping customers, then oftentimes the tipping customers don't get as good of service as they would have had the employee had to serve fewer customers. In this case the tipping customers are either going to tip less, in which case the server is still doing their job, but is making less money; or else the tipped customers are going to be paying for service they aren't getting, thanks to the extra work caused by the non-tipping customers.

    And finally, this isn't an argument as much as it is practical advice. To paraphrase: the cardinal rule of ordering food is “don't screw with people who handle your food”. At least in the eyes of tipped employees, when they aren't being tipped, they're being “screwed” with, and if they aren't particularly kind people, they might decide to screw with whichever customer is screwing them.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I dont see much difference between tipping arguments and BEGGING/beggars arguments…?
    All this guilt tripping.
    Service/product/work can and should be priced accordingly, so customer can pay accordingly.
    Ugh.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Addressing the second question: When I worked as a server at a restaurant, if I wasn't left a tip, or left a very small tip, I always asked the customers how the service and food was. Usually they were very unhappy with something, occasionally they were just stingy. This rarely resulted in me being tipped. However as the “face of the restaurant”, this practice showed that I get it, you weren't happy, but I do care enough to ask to try to improve things in the future. It was a way of saying something without coming across as “asking for more money”.

  9. records1138 says:

    Here's my problem with societies mentality of forced tipping – Making tipping a social necessity – which mind you, the United States is one of the few companies that feel it is – has in turn churned out lazy servers who feel that they should and will be compensated for providing poor to mediocre service, or in some cases, no service at all. It doesn't work that way. Serving my food and keeping my drink full is your job. You manager compensates you for this in your paycheck. However, when you provide me with a dining experience by way of checking on me, asking questions about how the food was, make recommendations when I don't know what I want, now you're offering me a dining experience that is tip worthy. You don't have to shine like a diamond to earn a tip from me, but you do have to do more than your expected job.

  10. records1138 says:

    @Knovak – I would absolutely pay $24.00 for a steak as opposed to $20.00 for that same steak if it meant that I was no longer a part of the tipping process.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I agree with this on a philosophical level, but not a practical one. Servers typically make half of minimum wage, so their well being is usually dependent upon tips. Philosophically you are in the right, practically you are an asshole.

  12. charlie puth says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I'm a server in Texas and we only make $2.13, which is all taken out for taxes. Every week my paycheck is $0 and I'm making strictly tips to pay my way through college. When you don't tip you are just taking away my time and attention from someone else who will actually have me make money.

  14. Anonymous says:

    It is not your customer's fault that you are working for $0 after taxes. You should get another job.

  15. Torvum says:

    The issue here is custom, i.e. social convention. Consider the following:

    Imagine you were hosting a job interview, stuck your hand out to shake the hand of your prospective employee and this particular person chooses not to reciprocate; all the other candidates dutifully shook your hand, however. I think you would be correct as interpreting this as a slight against you assuming that person shared your culture and I don't think anyone would be confused if you chose not to hire them.

    This is what's happening when someone leaves a bad or no tip, but with the power dynamics reversed. It's akin being rude. Effectively you're saying this: “Although you're used to being treated a certain polite way by everybody else, I REFUSE.”

    Now, a situation my warrant it, like if the service was bad, and then it's understandable. Otherwise it's the social equivalent to a slap.

    Anonymous wrote: “It is not your customer's fault that you are working for $0 after taxes. You should get another job.”

    You're missing the point entirely. You shouldn't be tipping because you feel personally obliged to pay the salary of another person's employee. As long as you think of it that way the whole convention will seem silly. Imagine someone stuck out their hand to shake yours and you thought to yourself “Today I don't feel like touching other peoples' hands. Besides, I just washed my hand and I don't want it to get dirty. I don't see why I'm obligated to touch this other person's hand just because he stuck it out.”

    Well, you DON'T have to but that's why it's especially important that you DO shake their hand. That's how social conventions work. Going around not tipping is like going around refusing shake peoples' hands – you can probably get away with it from time to time but it will probably bite you in the ass eventually. You're going to be treated rudely, met with anger, and maybe eventually ignored and it should be perfectly understandable why that is: because you're treating others in the same fashion.

  16. Anonymous says:

    For those complaining that you don't make enough as a server lol it's no ones fault. You knew what you aiming for as a server so if you're not happy with job, find a new one

  17. Unknown says:

    The whole social custom arguement does not hold at all. They change as years go by. It IS all about making up for lack of salary. This is the social custom that should change. Raise the price of the meals and give the employees minimum wage.

  18. Unknown says:

    Let me tell you something, and something that really annoys me, you see I drive a cab in England and guess what, now you can believe this or not. I did 24 jobs today 4 of which we’re Americans, how many of these 4 Americans do you think tipped me, yep none of them, I’m serious. Now I’m coming to the US in June so what do I do, should I return the compliment and not tip whilst I’m there

    1. Zech says:

      Tipping your cab driver in US is not expected. I only do this if they provide excellent service. Tipping at a restaurant is expected. You trying to “punish” those Americans that did not tip you as a cab driver by not tipping your server while in America won’t accomplish anything other than making you look like a jerk. They same opinion you had of those Americans that didn’t tip you. Go ahead, don’t tip if that’s what you need to do to sleep at night.

  19. Alex Bane says:

    Stop employers from profitting making money off the backs of wage slaves. Pass living wage laws and eliminate “tip charity”.

  20. cj says:

    Although I do leave tips, I agree with the poster who felt it isn’t our job to supplement another person’s salary. Employers need to bite the bullet and give their servers minimum wage at the very least. I can only think of once or twice in my lifetime that I didn’t leave a tip, and it was for seriously horrendous service. I just couldn’t justify rewarding such terrible service. I think sometimes a person needs a wake-up call and realize you have to earn your salary, not expect it as something you deserve no matter how you do your job.

  21. Alicia says:

    I base tips solely on the performance of the server. Its not their fault if the food came out wrong. But if you dont stop by and ask you wont know and you cant correct it. If i have to get up and tell you my food (as one of 4 tables in the place with 6 servers on who are all just gabbing off in a corner) is up in the window then you dont deserve a tip. If you are busy yet you have atleast had a good attitude while taking my order, bringing my food, and check i will look past the fact that you didnt top off my soda cuz i probably didnt need a second anyway as im a diabetic and will end up tipping you. On the average i tip anywhere from 15-50% based on the level of service provided and take into account how busy the resturaunt is and if i see others bussing tables. I have left no tip for the situation described above, called the manager the next day who reviewed the security cameras and called me back to profusely appologize. Not sure if she still has a job but i do know she bitched about not getting a tip to the manager shortly before i called as he said “oh, i heard that her table didnt tip, font you think that was rude?” And i explained everything to him.

    As for the question of paying more for a meal if tipping was done away with- yes i would gladly pay more. Honestly the tipping in The US needs to be done away with, the servers need to be given a living wage, and servers can stop shaming customers who may have saved up to bring someone out for a meal (like a child) for months as a special, they can stop shaming the ones who had to tip in change cuz thats all they had, they can stop posting in fb swearing like a sailor about how they were “awesome” but the customer was (insert swears and insults here). Local people see it and let me tell you, it makes me not want to go to your place of business and pay my hard earned money to you. You are afterall the face of the business and if thats what you say about customers that tells me you dont need my business. And the server (yes ive seen this) actually tags the resturaunt they work at while insulting patrons.

    So a tip is a gratuity, which is a thank you for good service not something that is mandatory.

  22. Mr Holly Wood says:

    “Salary is the responsibility of the restaurant, not the customer”

  23. Zech says:

    Tipping is a custom that should be done away with because it is not done right. At the end of the meal there should be a comment section for you to leave feedback on your server. I’ve had truly horrible service and in those situations left only a 10% tip and told the waiter the service was bad.

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