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Ethical Tipping

By Amy Brown
18 Jan 2016

It’s a well-known fact that servers make below minimum wage, with the assumption being that the difference will be made up for in tips from their tables. However, if one server happens to have a slow or lower-paying section one night, he or she can end up assisting others, yet never see any return for the help. This begs the question: is there a fairer and more ethical way to tip than simply keeping what your tables give you?

Anna Wood’s article in The Atlantic details how to make tipping fairer for everyone: by pooling tips. Since more than just the server works to provide the meal – the people in the back of the house, the bussers, the expeditors, other servers who refill water glasses while another server is occupied – pooling the tips ensure that everyone who helped gets some compensation. The distribution of tips is determined by a hierarchy, as servers earn below minimum wage and thus receive a higher portion of the tips than the bussers who are paid minimum wage, or bartenders who get their own tips in addition. This creates a more collaborative and positive work environment, where servers do not have to compete for tips and everyone can be more financially stable, as a night with unusually low tips during which a server helps others does not affect their finances as negatively. It also creates a more positive experience for the customer, as more people may attend to them during a busy shift than just one server handling a busy section alone.

Although Wood says that often times this is a fairer way to tip, many Americans respond negatively to the idea of pooled tips. This seems to be rooted in the American sense of self-reliance and independence, which ignores that there are more than just a singular person contributing work into the restaurant experience. Some say that it is unfair, as it does not go to the person they want it to go to. Systems also have to be put it place to avoid employees not working as hard as they could be, since they know they will receive tips regardless at the end of the night.

Is it more ethical to pool tips rather than keep what is earned each night? Is it unethical to redistribute earnings?

Amy graduated from DePauw University in 2017, and was a Hillman Intern and the Digital Media Assistant Managing Editor at the Prindle Institute for Ethics. At DePauw, she was an Honor Scholar and Political Science major with a Russian studies minor. She has spent time abroad in the Czech Republic and now works in Washington, D.C.
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