Most Americans would leave no tip for ‘bad service,’ survey shows

American restaurants have been in flux since the first days of the pandemic, grappling with new business models, staff shortages, rising labor and food costs, the lingering effects of crime, the elimination of tipped minimum wages in some locales, service-charge lawsuits, and governments, both local and federal, looking to regulate how the industry tacks on fees to checks.

Is it any wonder that diners have widely divergent opinions on the proper way to navigate restaurants in 2024? A new YouGov survey provides a glimpse into the American dining public’s attitudes toward restaurant policies that help proprietors deal with their ever-shrinking profit margins: time limits on tables, charging for tap water, automatic service charges and cancellation fees for reservations that are not honored.

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But one response stood out among the 40 etiquette questions that YouGov posed to more than 1,000 adults: 51 percent of Americans think it’s “acceptable” to leave no tip after receiving “bad service.” More men than women said stiffing the wait staff for poor service was okay (55 percent for men, 47 for women), and more Republicans and independents than Democrats said the same thing (55 percent for independents, 51 for Republicans and 47 for Democrats).

The survey made no attempt to define “bad service,” but its results indicate how the majority of Americans still view tips as discretionary, based on the level of service provided and not, essentially, a mandatory add-on to help pay for the front-of-the-house workers who receive as little as $2.13 an hour in some cities.

The age-old question about tipping remains an issue that neatly divides Americans, who are in greater agreement on other, more recent policies in U.S. restaurants. Seventy percent of Americans, for instance, think automated 20 percent service charges are unacceptable, while 31 percent of respondents think time limits on tables are acceptable.

That a majority of Americans think tipping is discretionary is “PRECISELY why we need One Fair Wage - a full minimum wage with tips on top,” texted Saru Jayaraman, president and co-founder of One Fair Wage, a group that seeks to eliminate the tipped minimum wage across the country. The organization, and others, have argued that tipped employees have twice the poverty rate of other workers and the highest rates of sexual harassment of any industry.

“Besides the fact that tips were always an incredibly unreliable source of income and subject to the whims and biases of customers, we are seeing a huge increase in ‘tip fatigue’ as more and more industries try to get the exemption the restaurant industry has,” Jayaraman added. “As tipping spreads as a result, customers tip less and less, with rising cost of living over the last few years, and it’s more and more important that workers receive a full minimum wage with tips on top.”

On the flip side, the National Restaurant Association has been lobbying to maintain the tip credit, which allows restaurant owners to pay a sub-minimum wage as long as diner gratuities cover the difference between the tipped wage and the full minimum wage in their jurisdiction. (If not, the owner is legally required to cover the gap.) The NRA argues the tipping model “maximizes server earnings, allows operators to hire ample waitstaff, and keeps menu prices affordable.” It also notes that in the tip model, the median income for servers is $27 an hour when combining base pay and tips.

The NRA has promoted the tip credit in a variety of ways, including issuing press releases that argue eliminating the tipped minimum wage would reduce the hospitality workforce, generate higher menu prices and lead to fewer restaurant openings. Last year, The Washington Post reported that the NRA was also funding “astroturf” groups in which servers and bartenders lobby against efforts to eliminate the tip credit.

In response to the survey result about no tipping for poor service, Michelle Korsmo, president and chief executive of the NRA, sent a statement to The Post. An NRA spokeswoman told The Post the association would have no further comment.

“Our surveys have shown that people who have worked in the industry say customer service, teamwork, and patience are some of the top skills they learn from working in a restaurant,” Korsmo said in the statement. “It’s these skills that lead to great tip compensation. While people say they are willing to adjust their tips based on service, people who work as servers love the opportunity to provide great hospitality, which leads to strong compensation.”

Lizzie Post, co-president of the Emily Post Institute, the fifth-generation family business dedicated to all forms of etiquette, says the question posed by YouGov may have confused respondents. She said it wasn’t clear whether the question was focused exclusively on full-service restaurants or whether it included counter-style restaurants. To the Emily Post Institute’s point of view, diners should always tip at full-service restaurant, regardless of a server’s performance. (Tipping at counter-service restaurants, by contrast, is discretionary, Post said.)

“It’s a part of the bargain, a part of the game,” said Post in an interview. “When you walk into a sit-down service restaurant - where you place an order with a server, they go and deal with it, they bring you food, they take that food away - that in our minds is nonnegotiable. You leave a tip no matter what, even if it was the worst service you’ve ever had in your life.”

Rather than leave no tip, Post said diners should speak to the manager about any problems, whether bad service or terrible food. “You might learn a couple things as to why things were that bad, and that restaurant probably should have alerted folks to say, ‘Hey, we’re down a chef tonight. Things are going to be a little slow,’” said Post, the great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post, the author and socialite.

“I think it’s really important to go and talk about the problem, if the problem was so bad that you don’t want to hold up your end of the bargain,” she added.

Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert and the owner of the Protocol School of Texas, said decisions about tipping depend on what customers consider “bad service.”

“If the food came out late or didn’t arrive at the temperature they desire, it could be the kitchen’s fault, shortage of wait staff or a variety of other reasons. This would lend itself to speaking to the manager and allowing the manager to adjust the bill,” Gottsman said in an email to The Post.

“Rudeness is a fair reason to skip a tip only after you speak to the manager and make sure others aren’t going to suffer if you walk out without leaving any type of gratuity. Often, tips are shared by others in a tip pool that benefit those who are working hard to earn your trust and satisfaction. This is why speaking to the general manager and allowing them to make it right is the first suggestion,” she added.

Gottsman also noted that service charges - which is money owned by the restaurant, as opposed to tips, which are legally owned by tipped workers - don’t automatically go to servers. “Make sure and ask where the fee is going and who will benefit before skipping a tip,” she said.

Michael Lynn, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, said he isn’t interested in telling people how they should behave when it comes to tipping.

“I myself am comfortable stiffing counter help providing only standardized service, but even I would not feel comfortable stiffing a restaurant server when the service was bad,” Lynn said in an email to The Post.

“If service was bad enough (but server was not insulting or otherwise offensive), then I might tip as little as 10 percent. I know the server would consider 10 percent inappropriately low, but that would not deter me. But I would not stiff a restaurant server who did a bad job. Only deliberately insulting or offensive behavior by a server would get me to stiff them. That is my standard, but I do not think others have to agree with it.”

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