Be Nice to Your Server: Tipping Actually Benefits You

They say that everyone should be a server at one point in their lives.

That way you have a greater appreciation for those who serve you your food (and, frankly, all the BS they have to deal with on the regular). For me, I was probably a server for too long in my 20s, with a tray a staple accessory throughout university, grad school and in between acting gigs. I can tell you first-hand that tips (or lack thereof) can make or break a shift. That’s why, for me, a bad tipper has always been a major red flag/deal breaker on a first date.

Of course, now, I find myself on the other side of the bar, or as a customer at Toronto restaurants on the regular for both work and fun. And, I’ll admit, while I never have the heart to tip less than 18 per cent even if the service is absolutely terrible (which it has been), it’s always a little annoying to tip for bad service, especially when I know that the server could easily make more than I did that day in their tips alone (welcome to the world of freelance writing).

The whole concept of tipping – which began in 17th century England at public houses (pubs) before being adopted by North America after the Civil War – has been a hot topic in the restaurant world as of late. In recent years, some restaurants (mainly south of the border) have experimented with zero-gratuity policies in lieu things like automatic service charges or inclusive pricing. The argument is that tipping harms workers – for example, by discriminating against less attractive servers and by sexualizing women – and takes away from the dining experience for customers. It is also said to fuel discrimination against certain groups who are perceived as bad tippers.

A recent MacLean’s article titled, “Why we should end tipping in time for Christmas,” written by associate professor of food economics at Guelph University, Michael von Massow, points to research that suggests that the relationship between service quality and the size of the tips is very small. The reason being is that most customers tip within a certain narrow range, regardless of the level of service received. For all of its aforementioned negative ramification, he says it’s time to retire the concept. New research, however, has shown that tipping actually benefits the customer by improving service and boosting customer satisfaction. Two studies conducted by Michael Lynn, Professor of Food and Beverage Management at Cornell University, reveal that tipping is actually to the advantage of the customer, while doing away with the concept can harm them.

To assess the effects of tipping, Lynn turned to ReviewTrackers, a firm that monitors online reviews for companies, to obtain reviews of the restaurants that had recently changed their tipping policies. He then analyzed the data to determine whether the customers’ ratings were higher with or without tipping. Lynn’s findings suggest distaste with the no-tipping policy, and decreased overall customer satisfaction with their experience with service and prices under that policy.

Lynn’s second study focused on 31 independent restaurants from across the U.S. that had moved away from traditional tipping practices in the past four years, with an agenda to compare two tipping alternatives. These two tipping alternatives include automatic service charges (whereby a tip is tacked on to all bills automatically) and service-inclusive pricing. Lynn found that restaurants that replaced tipping with the automatic gratuity experienced about a quarter of a point drop in online ratings – something that doesn’t surprise me. I was met with curt questions most of the time when I informed groups of over 8 upon arrival that their bill came with an automatic gratuity of 18 per cent (something customers failed to consider was actually hurting me when I always typically received at least 20 per cent). Similarly, Lynn suggests this was because customers hate being forced to tip more.

Lynn also found those restaurants that switched to service-inclusive pricing saw a decline of only a 10th of a point. The fact that the tip is accounted for in higher prices was less of a turn off to customers.

Interestingly, Lynn highlights that the negative impact of nixing tipping was related to how pricey or cheap a restaurant was, with the less expensive restaurants experiencing a greater hit than the high-end ones. Appropriately, most of the restaurants that are introducing alternative forms of tipping are the higher-end spots. The bottom line is that wealthier customers are less likely to retaliate against the changes. As Lynn concludes, his results serve as evidence that tipping, in fact, enhances the customer’s overall level of satisfaction because it “increases both perceived and actual service quality and allows customers to determine the cost of that service.”

As a friendly reminder, when it comes to tipping, keep in mind that servers generally only make a base salary of $10.25 per hour in Canada and that the standard amount to tip is now pretty much 18 to 20 per cent. If you can’t afford a meal with tip, do everyone a favour and opt for takeout or ordering in (when tipping is not mandatory and a 10 per cent tip is generally the norm).