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Why You Should (Almost) Always Give a 5-Star Rating

photograph of grocery bag delivered on doorstep

One type of business that has not only survived but thrived during the pandemic is home grocery delivery. In addition to many grocery stores themselves offering delivery, there are app-based services, like Instacart, which work on a system much like other gigging apps like Uber or Lyft. People can sign up as a contract worker – or “shopper,” as they’re known in the Instacart world – where they can accept orders, pick them up from the relevant store, and deliver them to the customer. The service is convenient, tends not to be very expensive, and, at its outset, provided shoppers with a good source of income.

Things have since changed. Many shoppers have recently reported that their earnings have dropped drastically, sometimes by as much as 50%, due to new policies that the company has implemented. Because shoppers are contract employees, they are not protected by minimum wage laws in the U.S. or Canada, and many found that, after calculating for time and expenses, that they were now making less than minimum wage. The result has been a call for strikes by the Gig Workers Collective, a group that claims to represent a significant number of Instacart shoppers (along with gig workers in other industries). Several of their demands center on greater transparency by Instacart when determining how much jobs are paid, as well as rolling back some of the new policies. One policy of note concerns how customer ratings of Instacart employees affect their earning potential.

The rating system can be found everywhere in the gig economy. If you’ve ever taken an Uber or a Lyft or whatever other rideshare program you like best, chances are you’ve been asked to assign your driver a rating out of 5 stars once you arrived at your destination. Chances are you’ve also realized that the star system is crude, at best: while having a 4/5 rating on pretty much anything else in life means that you’re doing great, it’s easy to look at ratings in the low 4’s on these kinds of apps and wonder what someone did wrong.

The rating system used by Instacart is potentially the most punitive among the gigging apps. As one employee describes, workers who have the highest ratings get the first choice of deliveries that come in on the app. That means that the deliveries that pay the most go to the highest-rated, and that even a small dip in one’s rating could mean a loss of a significant amount of money. “Even though shoppers in the, let’s say, 4.9- to five-star range provide virtually the same quality service,” the employee said in an interview, “those even slightly below a perfect five-star rating can slip to orders that pay significantly differently.”

There seems to be a clear need for Instacart to change its policies. But what does this say about what you, the Instacart user, ought to do? Let’s say you place an order through Instacart, and something went slightly wrong. Maybe the shopper was a little late, or maybe your bread got smooshed a little bit. Nothing major, but it’s not perfect. It certainly doesn’t seem like 5-star service, so you give it 4 stars.

While it may seem from the user’s perspective that this was a fair rating, the overly punitive nature of the rating system used by Instacart means that in docking the shopper a star one is potentially significantly hindering the employee’s earning potential. It would certainly seem like an overreaction to, say, dock someone’s pay by thousands of dollars a year just because they broke a couple of eggs, and given the current rating system in place, giving anything less than a 5-star rating will potentially have this consequence.

Here, then, is a suggestion for a norm of rating gig workers: when it comes to companies like Instacart that excessively punish workers for average ratings that dip even slightly below 5-stars, one ought to forgive all minor mistakes and assign 5-star ratings in almost every circumstance.

There will be exceptions: one need not forgive all mistakes. For example, if your shopper shows up at your house 8 hours late, dumps all of your groceries on your lawn, and then knocks over your mailbox as they peel out of your driveway, assigning a rating lower than 5 stars would be justified. But in most normal circumstances given the disconnect between one’s feelings of whether a job has been done well and the consequences for imperfection, these feelings will not translate into proportional punishment by using the rating system in a way that might seem fair to the user.

One might think that the onus for making a rating system proportional should fall to the company, and not the user. Indeed, the Gig Workers Collective’s demand to adjust the system is motivated at least in part by the fact that users of Instacart will most naturally be inclined to assign ratings that they think are fair. In the same interview mentioned above, the Instacart employee is all too aware of this, noting that “the urge to rate a delivery service four stars or lower makes sense on the surface,” and that it seems that if “the service did not deliver on its promise, the customer has the right to report and penalize this service.”

In the interim, however, an employee’s livelihood seems to be much more of an important concern than needing to make sure that one is able to express one’s frustration over small issues. Given the way the system is set up currently, then, it will almost certainly be unfair to give an Instacart shopper anything lower than a 5-star rating.

Insider Talk: Challenging Food Choices

Photograph of a table set for six people

When a company wants to go green, are there limits on what it can ask of its employees? This question came to the fore due to WeWork’s recent announcement: the company will no longer serve or reimburse for meat, citing the environmental costs of animal protein and, to a lesser extent, worries about animal welfare. The reaction was swift and negative: it’s just virtue signaling, it’s an ideological crusade, it’s tribalism, it’s bull. The North American Meat Institute, a lobbying group for the industry — has even launched, a response to the threat of “your office dictating your food choices,” and which aims to “fight meat denial.”

Here, though, I don’t want to get lost in the criticisms of WeWork’s policy, both because they seem like overreactions, and because they seem misguided in an era that expects moral leadership in business. They are overreactions because such policies don’t force anyone to do anything. You want to eat meat? Go for it. Just don’t expect your company to subsidize it. Was it any worse for companies to remove cigarette machines from their offices in the 80s, when smoking was still commonplace? And they are misguided because this sort of disagreement is the price of something that’s genuinely good: namely, having companies care about more than profits. We have long wanted businesses to be more socially conscious, but of course we disagree about what being “socially conscious” involves. These conflicts aren’t bugs in the new order: they’re features, and ones to which we should acclimate ourselves.

So let’s set those issues aside. Instead, let’s focus on the general puzzle here. Why do we bristle when people challenge our meat consumption? And is our bristling justified?

There are, of course, those who don’t like the challenge because they’re climate change skeptics, or they don’t think it matters at all whether animals suffer, or what have you. But if one of those factors explains the negative reaction, then the disagreement is probably too deep to resolve, and we should simply move on.

There are a slew of other uninteresting possibilities. For instance, we don’t like being made to feel guilty about food. (But who likes it in other contexts?) And you sometimes hear people say that change is hard. (Not much defense: we can always play that card.) Ultimately, though, I think we need a more interpersonal story. We don’t seem to think that people have the right to criticize what we eat. And why would that be? What norm are they violating?

A few possibilities come to mind. The first is that this is somehow a violation of privacy. But if that’s what’s bothering us, it won’t go far as a justification. It’s one thing to claim that a matter is private when it has no public consequences. But our diets do, and so they seem subject to public scrutiny.

A second option is a “local knowledge” objection. Maybe no one knows a person’s situation well enough to decide what he or she ought to eat. Only you know whether you need some chicken to flourish, or if you can make it just fine on garbanzo beans. But again, this seems implausible as a defense. I don’t know much at all about what my body needs; I just know what makes me feel good. And feeling good is as much about habit and history as it is about biology: I feel a certain way in response to whether I’m getting what I want (cake), not whether I’m fueling in the optimal way (spinach and lentils).

A third story is that we’re not open to moralizing about food, as we care too much about it. This is a bit like the way that having children is awful for the environment, but we don’t stop having them for that reason. The environment matters to us, but not that much. However, the parallel isn’t great. The impulse to have children runs deep, and for many people, their kids make their lives meaningful. Of course, food is also tied to living meaningfully: table fellowship is among life’s basic pleasures, and can forge deep bonds. However, you can savor time with family without eating turkey. This requires flexibility, but not the rejection of one of our deepest longings.

A final possibility — and the one I find most plausible — is that food talk is insider talk. Debates about what we eat, like debates about sex and child rearing, are ones we have with those who aren’t in our tribe — with non-Christians or non-liberals or non-crunchy moms — but we generally don’t change our minds as a result. By contrast, if a fellow liberal expresses worries about prostitution, or if your pastor gives you an argument against spanking your kids, you might well see things differently. You trust insiders to see the world in roughly the way you do, and as a result, their reasoning gets extra weight in your own deliberations.

If this is what’s going on, it’s both understandable and unfortunate. The former, because ethics is hard, disagreement is everywhere, and we need some strategy for deciding how to allocate our limited time and attention. After all, moral conversation isn’t the whole of life; at some point, you have to do the dishes and the laundry.

It’s unfortunate, though, because of what it implies about the way people insulate ourselves from moral criticism. There are things for which it’s worth circling the wagons. But food? In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius observed that “all through our lives when things lay claim to our trust,” we should strive to see them clearly, “stripping away the legend that encrusts them.” Food is full of legends, but it’s ultimately just sustenance. It’s a mean to many ends — nutritionally, socially, politically — though ones that can usually be achieved in other ways. It isn’t sacrosanct, and change, though difficult, is possible.

So should everyone become a strict vegetarian? Maybe, maybe not. But the conversation is worth having.