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.