Wednesday, July 10, 2013

What Do You Tip for Bad Service?

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You know the dining experience is not going well when you have to get up and get your own silverware. Let me be clear: I am not nor I have I ever been a waitress. I’m pretty sure if you put an order pad in my hand and said, “Go!” I would be a disaster. I do not have the temperament. At best somebody is getting cussed out. At worst somebody is going to jail. I have a lot of respect for the folks out there hustling food and drink with a smile. I have received service so outstanding that I couldn’t tip enough. And then there was last Friday night.

I’ll spare you the minutia and hit the highlights. No silverware… lukewarm water for tea… no bread on the table… leftovers beautiful boxed, bagged, but then set on the floor. When the bill came I was reminded why I love my friends.  Nobody whipped out a calculator and said, “You had wine and I only water.” None of my close friends are that lame. We eat heartily, drink heavily, and pay promptly. Without ceremony we evenly divided the bill four ways.

The difficulty came in tabulating the tip, which had not been included. That was good since I didn’t think our waitress deserved one. I was under the impression that bad service equals no tip. My compatriots disagreed. They still wanted to give her something. Why? “Because she’s nice,” they said.


So even though we all agreed the service was subpar, the fact that our waitress didn’t spit in our food, throw a drink in our face, or stab us with a dinner fork warranted an 18% tip?  Yes, in case you didn’t know: the standard tip has risen from 15% to 18%. But what do you do when the service is terrible? I say no tip. Does your job pay you just for being nice or do you still have to do your job? If we still have to tip when the service is bad, why not make it even 20% and tell everybody to keep up the good work?

know what you’re thinking. 

Maybe the restaurant was crowded.

t wasn’t.

Maybe the waitress was new.

Perhaps, but that’s not my problem.

C’mon! She’s nice.

Well, why didn’t you say so? That explains everything.

My ever-generous friends suggested that maybe our waitress didn’t like her job.


I’ve never understood this logic. If you don’t like your job, all the more reason to do it well. Are you waiting for your dream job to come along before you bother to develop a work ethic? Good luck with that. Unless you’re self employed, you’re not working for the person who signs your checks. You’re always working for yourself. Always.

This was too deep for a Friday night. I lost the argument. We paid the 18%. Split four ways it came to $30 each. Two of us paid cash, two of us paid by credit card. Easy breezy, right? No. Apparently this was graduate-level calculus. Even with help of a manager it took us over half an hour to settle up. Maybe we should have taken the hint and left out the tip.

Here’s a real tip. If you’re at a sit-down restaurant and have to get up to get your own anything, just keep walking. I guarantee it’ll save you at least 18%.

The Urban Erma, the longest running column on, was created and written by Leighann LordListen to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher RadioWatch the video edition on YouTube.comIf you enjoy The Urban Erma please leave a comment, like it on Facebook, follow on Twitter, and share it with your friends. (Share it with people who are not your friends and maybe they will be.) 


Leressa said...

remember the minimum wage for wait staff is significantly lower than the minimum for other employees.

Leighann Lord said...

Good point. I do remember that, and it's certainly an argument for why the minimum wage structure for food service employees does not work and should be raised to a living wage. It in no way excuses a job poorly done, does it?

Sis PD said...

There is a "tip out pool" for tips so,when you don't tip at all or tip low it impacts the other staff as well. It is a crazy system but the guy or gal that buses the table gets 2 or 3% of that 18% in many restaurants.

Leighann Lord said...

Then, shouldn't the service be even more on point if I, as a waitress, know that my coworkers are counting on me being the "front" person?

Joyce Turiskylie said...

I love your blog! But as a long-time waitress...

Silverware not on the table? That's a busboy's job. And frankly, most of the busboys in NYC are Bengali. And it's Ramadan. The beginning of it---where they're either tired and dragging because they haven't eaten all day or they're in the back room taking a half an hour break to "break the fast". Also---a hostess should NOT have sat you at an unprepared table. You don't know how many times I've literally BEGGED hostesses not to seat people at DIRTY tables---let alone tables without silverware. I'm a server, not a manager.

The water not being hot enough for the tea? Have you ever used one of those industrial-sized coffee machines? It's broken. And you have to call in a professional for that. I'm a server. Not the Maytag repairman. I don't know how to fix one of those things any more than you do.

The bread? should know that (between Atkins and the fact that 40% of the American population now believes they have to be "gluten-free") a lot of people don't eat bread. So a lot of places don't automatically put it on the tables anymore. Some places don't give it at all. Others only by request. Also---giving bread and water to the tables is a busboy job. And remember, it's Ramadan. He's off the floor for a good half hour.

The to-go bag on the floor? That one seems odd. I always put it on the table. Maybe she WAS new. But remember your first few sets as a comic? Were you perfect? We all have to start somewhere.

If you believe your service was so bad that you don’t feel the need to tip---ask to speak to a manager. And actually, unless some foul thing happened only at the end of the meal, you should ask for a manager early on. Don’t suffer in silence and then passive-aggressively not tip. Make things better! The manager will see to it that the rest of your meal goes smoothly and may even send you over a free dessert. Say something!

It takes a LOT of people to run a restaurant. Unfortunately, the server is usually the only one people see. We get blamed for everything from the steak being over-cooked to the drinks being too expensive to the lack of toilet paper in the ladies room.
I once had an old Frenchman yell and scream at me because he couldn’t use a coupon. When I politely pointed out that the coupon clearly said, “Not to be combined with other offers”---he started shaking his fist at me and called me a crook!

I didn’t write the coupon. I didn’t own the restaurant.

But apparently it was all my fault. And he was going to teach me a lesson by not tipping me.

He was a mean man.

But he was pretty old. He’s probably dead by now.

And he sure didn’t take that $6 with him.

She was nice. Yeah. That’s enough. Some days when you’re a waitress, being nice is the hardest part.

How many people that you see on the train or at the store or walking on the street are nice to you?

Leighann Lord said...


You must be psychic!!! I was thinking of you just today and wondering what your response would be to this post. Thank you so much for responding and in such a detailed fashion. You make a lot of good points.

This particular experience happened pre-Ramadan in a Massachusetts hotel restaurant. You are very right when you say we should have addressed the issues we were having earlier with the manager. (Black women think suffering in silence elevates us to martyr status and this gives us the right to perennial pissed. :-) #workingonit )

Since posting this, I have been surprised by how low the standard of service has become. People seem willing to justify/rationalize bad service with multiple excuses that should never be the customer's problem. We don't accept this in other industries, so why food service?
Have we all collectively learned not to expect much, and that any old treatment is fine?

I've actually never NOT tipped; at least not on purpose. But the idea of tipping even when someone does a bad job seems wrong. As always, it's the bad ones who ruin it for everybody.

And yeah. I'm pretty sure the mean old French guy is dead now. (Although, if we're making allowances for behavior, maybe he was a mean young guy too. Maybe, as an old guy he was on a very tight budget and he really needed that coupon to stretch his retirement dollars. Maybe the exchange rate made his trip to America more expensive than he could afford.)