E-pinions

Drawing the Line on Tips: Where Does It End?

Employee compensation is a complicated issue that can stir passion in people. Recently, the now-former CEO of Wells Fargo was taken to task by Congress for his company’s compensation practices, which many believe contributed to widespread fraud on the part of bank employees.

There are no easy answers when it comes to compensation. But there is a relatively recent trend in compensation that has me irritated. I need to get this off my chest, so I’m choosing you to hear my complaint.

My work frequently requires me to travel. The other day, I was in a room in a nice, boutique hotel, and on the table was an envelope in which I could leave a tip for the housekeeper who serviced my room. Neatly written on the envelope was the name of the person who would provide cleaning services during my stay.

It was as if Natalie was trying to establish a relationship with me. And why not? If I felt like I knew her, I might be compelled to give her a nice tip. I started to think that maybe Natalie should tell me more about herself. Maybe a short bio was in order so I could learn more about her. Does she have a family? Is she a single mother working hard to support herself and her children? What about a picture of Natalie and her family? Would that encourage generosity?

I think I’m a reasonably generous person. We all probably do. But when I really considered what I was being asked to do, it bothered my sensibilities. I was being asked to pay Natalie for doing her job well. Isn’t that her employer’s responsibility? I know we’ve all become accustomed to tipping service providers such as wait staff in restaurants, cab drivers, and bellhops at hotels. But where should we draw the line?

Our society has become more of a service economy over the years. So many of us make our living providing services to others. Should we all expect a tip from a customer for a job well done? More important, should employers assume they can pass on some of the costs of their employees’ compensation directly to customers?

We have a team of fantastic customer service people at BLR. After a customer service representative solves a customer’s issue or answers a question, would it be appropriate for our company to send a follow-up e-mail that goes something like, “Thank you so much for calling today. We hope your concern was resolved to your satisfaction. If Bob did a great job for you, you can show your appreciation by clicking this button, and we will provide him a $10 tip from you. Your credit card on file will be charged $10 in order to make rewarding Bob simple for you. Thank you!”

Then I, Bob’s employer, can track how much he makes in tips. That will not only tell me how our customers perceive the level of service Bob provides, but it will also help me determine how much (or how little) I need to pay Bob per hour because he’ll get the rest of his compensation directly from customers. Isn’t that what the hotel was doing when it asked me to pay Natalie for doing her job?

And is it unreasonable for me to believe that I’m paying the hotel to provide a service that includes a clean room? I feel like I’m being a curmudgeon or cheapskate here, complaining about tipping someone who probably works very hard and makes a relatively low wage. But let me be clear: My issue isn’t with Natalie; it’s with her employer, which is looking for me to supplement her compensation. Does that mean the hotel’s management knows it’s not paying her appropriately and is providing her the means to request a tip to assuage its guilt? If the hotel underpays other staff, should I also tip them? For instance, should I tip the front desk clerk for checking me in efficiently when I arrive? I’m sure he, like Natalie, could use a few extra bucks.

I understand that the compensation for certain professions is based on a system in which customers pay a gratuity for the services provided. I’m struggling with professions that suddenly are jumping on the gratuity bandwagon because it allows the employer to supplement employees’ compensation without it coming from the employer. It imposes an additional cost typically borne by the service provider on the customer, and I’m not sure where it ends. It’s a slippery slope when any company that provides a service believes it can push customers to pay gratuities to employees. The next thing you know, the cashier at the grocery store will have a tip jar sitting next to the register! Who could blame him?