I often think that us Americans know how to take a good thing and push it too far (e.g., youth sports, St Patrick’s Day, the size of burritos). Maybe tipping is next? Just as tipping seems to be expanding, a leading New York City restauranteur has announced an end to tipping in his restaurants. Why? With larger tips being given to servers and front-of-the-house workers but not shared with cooks, dishwashers, and other back-of-the-house workers, income differentials have widened. Ending tipping and raising menu prices is seen as a way to raise the pay of the back-of-the-house workers.
From an academic perspective, this could be seen as a contest of economic versus psychological approaches to human resources (HR). A system of tipping is consistent with an economics mindset—that is, the prospect of receiving a larger tip is believed to provide an incentive for providing better service to the customer. This is because economics assumes that workers are motivated by money, and need money to be motivated. As with many incentives, there can be additional effects. Some servers might expect that certain customers will be stingy tippers (like economists at a conference!), and provide weaker service from the start. And the prospect of tips provides an incentive for servers to turn over tables, which can also be good for the business but not necessarily for the diners. And if tipping prevents higher wages for back-of-the-house staff, then this makes those jobs less attractive, which can be a challenge for restaurants (to be frank, it’s not clear to me why tipping prevents raising back-of-the-house pay, but that’s the story the restaurant industry seems to believe, or wants us to believe).
Economic theory predicts that replacing tips with a higher charge that can be distributed to all employees will weaken these incentives and reduce customer service. From a different perspective, however, this shift is seen as creating greater levels of workplace fairness. Consistent with simple psychological theorizing (which is also taking hold in behavioral economics), greater levels of fairness should promote cooperation among employees. A manager at a Twin Cities restaurant with a no-tipping policy was quoted in the paper as saying “Without that giant pay disparity, the front-of-the-house/back-of-the-house dynamic is definitely different here” (StarTribune, October 22, 2015) And if employees are motivated intrinsically and value fairness, then customer service shouldn’t suffer. Tipped workers also bear the psychological burden of variability and unpredictability (e.g., some shifts are slower, and thus tips lower, than others) so eliminating tips can have other benefits for workers which can, in turn, benefit customers.
As an aside, traditional economic theory also suggests that pooling tips to share and replacing tips with higher menu prices distributed to all workers are essentially the same, and incentives will be weakened in either case. But psychological and behavioral economics thinking suggests that these are not the same if there is a psychological process involved with a server earning the tip and then being forced to share it. So there are many layers to this issue.