Mark Johnson

    Tipping culture

    Monday 22nd July, 2019 - 4 min read

    I spent last week in Las Vegas on a work trip and got to experience the joys of American tipping culture. I decided I don’t like it, and wanted to write a post to think through why that is.

    A few examples

    I was getting a cab between hotels for a meeting and casually asked the driver if the cabs had Wi-Fi. I didn’t even particularly care about getting Wi-Fi but I was just curious. He said there wasn’t Wi-Fi but he had a personal hotspot on his phone and said I could use it. I said I was okay but thanked him, but it didn’t stop there. He showed me it was turned on and said I could just type in the password, trying to hand me his phone in the process. Again I said thanks very much but I was okay as it was just a short journey. And the reason I declined was because I knew he was trying to get a bigger tip from me. It’s not even the money, I have no problem paying for Wi-Fi, but it’s the conditional nature of it. It left a sour taste in my mouth.

    Another time I was ordering a pizza slice for lunch. I’d finished paying and then saw they were selling garlic knots and I asked if I could get one of those too. I pulled out my card to pay again but the guy at the till said it was no problem and threw it in for free. Again, like offering to hook me up with Wi-Fi, this would normally be a kind act. But it felt like a calculated move. When tipping is standard practice and good service is rewarded, if you get something thrown in for free there’s the expectation of an increased tip. And so instead of the company receiving payment for the garlic knot, the employees received it. This points to misaligned incentives where employees can break company policy to “do the customer a favour” and redirect money from the company to themselves. This is the second time where a favour wasn’t really a favour, it felt like a calculated move to increase tips.

    Finally, we were attending meetings in the suites at the top of our hotel and we didn’t have key card access for the elevator so we were relying on security guards to swipe us up. As a US outsider, I didn’t even realise that this was one of the many situations that called for tips until one of the security guards gave us a questionable look after buzzing us up the third or fourth time. We’d have to give them cash to keep them on side, and if we didn’t we got the feeling that getting up to the suites would become harder than it had previously been.

    Conclusion

    I don’t like the conditionality that tipping introduces. People are nice on the surface, but only because of the tip. There’s a disconnect between who people really are and how they act. I think it also forms an implicit connection between good behaviour and payment which, conscious or not, may make people less likely to be polite when they’re off the clock. We don’t have unlimited amounts of goodwill. After a day of fake smiles and “have a great day“‘s, it feels inevitable for people to drop the front and have less goodwill remaining for when they’re outside of the workplace.

    When arriving back in Dublin, I had to open the door to the taxi and load my own bag in the back. It was in stark contrast to the US. The taxi driver didn’t jump to my aide, and I honestly didn’t care. I’d rather someone be honest to themselves and give me poor service than have a disconnect between their true feelings and how they act to earn tips.

    Aside

    Our team is building products to increase customer usage of Office, and one mechanism Microsoft use to achieve this are incentive payouts that are conditional on customer usage (e.g. increase customer usage to earn $$$). Tying employees salaries to customer tips sounds like a great formula to deliver customer satisfaction, but it can also lead to a fake and conditional interaction from the employee. Incentives are a powerful thing and have second order affects that aren’t always obvious, and my recent trip to the US has reminded me about the impact that incentives have on systems.


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