Friday, May 31, 2013

The Tip Jar: NY Starbucks Case Emphasises the Expansion of our Social Custom

I see them everywhere: coffeehouses, my late night burrito joint, even the corner garage.  Tip jars.  Employees put them out, people feel compelled to put money in them.  Are we a a culture so trained to put money where we're told that we cannot step back an think about the skewed paradigm in which we're contributing too?  Soon, if someone rings a bell-am I to salivate?

An article in Wednesdays New York Business Journal discusses how the New York Court of Appeals is going to rule on a Starbucks case regarding who is supposed to receive the tips from the tip jar-as all the employees (managers included) feel as though they have a right to them.  I cannot believe this case is even wasting the judicial system's time!

I have lived off of tips I have received in the restaurant/bar business far longer than a regular paycheck.  And I will be the first to admit that tiping has gotten out of hand.  Everyone believes they have the right to everyone else's money!  I am even amazed at how personally staff members take their tips from a check-to-check basis.  Of course, I never wanted to get stiffed-and rarely did, but I never expected people to mortgage their house to show me their appreciation.  But does everyone deserve a tip?

Tiping, to be clear-is a form of gratuity (do I need to define that?).  It has also become a social custom.  In North America, the standard is 15-20% for services rendered.  In addition, we have also formed an entire tax structure around tips.  This option is available as an alternative form of compensation for the business owner, but not all business owners are required to abide by a tip-structured payment methods.  Some business will pay their staff a flat rate for varying reasons, for example: some business owners don't feel their guest should have to tip.  In addition, some businesses use the tip-structure, but require the tips to be shared among all the employees (cooks and busboys alike).  I have often been asked by guests if I have to share my tips with the staff.  More often than not, the structure is a decreased hourly wage (minimum determined by the state), compensated by tips with the exception that the tipped employee is to payout a certain percentage (usually based off of their sales) to the bar and busboy for services rendered (this determined by the restaurant).  And in other businesses (some casinos, or subcontracted cafeterias, for example) staff members are not allowed to receive tips.

In the event of counter-service dining, employees are paid a flat-rate.  The appearance of tip jars (in my opinion) came about as a vessel for unwanted change and now has morphed into this conundrum.  I'm not saying these people don't deserve a tip from time-to-time, but I do not understand what differentiates them from the guy who helped me at McDonald's?  What makes this seemingly upscale counter service more deserving?

Tiping out in restaurants can occasionally create some issues-in some cases a staff member might be resentful of a tiped-out employee who is rather lazy and slow-to-action.  These issues are dealt with in-house and usually quickly resolved.  In a restaurant I was the bar manager for, the staff will came up with their own rules to make the 'tip-out' to the bartender or busboy a little more fair.  For example: during lunchtime when the bar doesn't have a lot of alcohol sales-very often if the server didn't sell any alcohol-I wouldn't have them tip me out.  Or in a you-sratch-my-back approach, if they were helping me in some way, I wouldn't let them tip me out.  Gestures of these often had more to do with team morale than the money and where our values at work lay.  This was purely optional and not everyone went along with it, but the vast majority did.  No one got rich this way-it was our own way of showing understanding and appreciation without having a dollar-amount attached.

Within the restaurant business, it is considered a professional courtesy to over-tip others like you.  Even for mediocre service or when requesting a glass of water at a bar.  Karma haunts us wherever we go and those of us working for tips-generally spend significantly more money overall due to the fact we were in service too and afraid of looking bad.  I have mixed feelings on this.  I never want to disrespect my friends and colleges, but at a certain point it gets kinda ridiculous, right?  Receiving $40 tips for $10 tabs doesn't make me feel good about myself or the service I provided-it feels like this person has no sense of money. 

In the case of Starbucks, what began as a sign of gratitude (on the part of the guest)-looks now to be a selfish issue of poor management.  I don't know a [good] manager who would ever take tips from their staff.  Even when they were working as hard as the staff member on the floor-the manager's help isn't about the money (re: tips), it is about maintaining a successful and efficient business overall.

If you're worried about who is getting the tip you are leaving for a specific person-make sure you hand it to them directly.  Beyond that, there is little we can do.

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