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Your burger is cold, the service is sluggish and your gum-chewing waitress snaps your head off when you ask for extra ketchup. When you have a restaurant experience this bad, is it ever okay to show your displeasure by stiffing your server on the tip?

That’s the question we asked Lizzie Post, the great-great-granddaughter of famous etiquette expert Emily Post, in an interview about all things tipping. Here’s her take:

“You should never let your money talk for you. If you get good service, in addition to leaving a good tip, you would want to thank your server, bellboy, etc. When it goes the other way, you still should leave the customary 15 percent. If you had horrendous service and it was the service provider’s fault, some people might go as low as 10 percent. But we suggest that you leave 15 percent and then immediately speak to a manager to express your dissatisfaction. Say that you’re unhappy with how you were treated and that you’re reluctant to return after such an experience. That will speak volumes to a manager.”

The idea of paying someone for lousy service is anathema to some travelers, but personally, I’m with Post on this one. Waitstaff, bellhops and other people in the service industry depend on tips to supplement paltry salaries — and I rarely get upset enough over poor service to harm someone’s livelihood. Besides, speaking with a manager is arguably more effective than withholding a tip; he or she has the authority to encourage better behavior or take action against the server if necessary. Finally, remember that tips are sometimes pooled among multiple members of the staff (such as busboys or bartenders), so in stiffing your waiter you could also be penalizing people who did nothing wrong.

You can read the rest of our interview with Lizzie Post in Tipping Etiquette: A Guide for Travelers.

Do you leave a tip for lackluster service? Vote in our poll!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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15 Responses to “Travel Tip of the Week: Should You Tip for Bad Service?”

  1. Cheryl H. says:

    Hi Sarah,

    I read, with interest, this article on proper tipping etiquette and I have to say, I 100% disagree! With the restaurant industry, anyone applying for and getting a job as a server/busboy/hostess/etc. they know up front before accepting the job that the job involves the public and service to the public. They also know up front that their “wage” is low so, their service skills and treatment of their customers will have a lot to do with whether their tips will generate decent revenue to supplement their “wage”. This is not earth shattering news, even those of us NOT in the restaurant service industry understand that concept (that’s a whole other topic if one wants to discuss whether restaurants treat their servers fairly with wages and/or benefits).

    So, as a server (and I don’t deny it can be a heck of a hard job because the public comes with all sorts of customers from the very enjoyable to the downright nasty), you know that if you are going to make good money, it’s going to come from how well your customers thank you with their generosity in tips.

    Keep in mind, it is NOT the customers’ fault that your employer pays you minimum wage or less. It is NOT the customers’ responsibility to subsidize your low wage. It is NOT the customers’ responsibility to feel sorry for all servers because they probably have a hard-done by story which explains why they have taken on the job of serving in a restaurant (and no, not all servers have them. Some take on the job because they genuinely love serving, meeting people and the hours).

    So just what IS the customer’s responsibility? The customer has come in to buy a meal and it is the customer’s responsibility to pay for that meal. It’s a product of the restaurant, just the same as if you go to a store and buy a new pair of shoes.

    The customer has the right to expect service when making a purchase… If the customer thinks they got incredible service from the retail store clerk, the customer may feel quite strongly that they would like to tip the retail service clerk, even though that is not the norm in the retail business. But the customer is thrilled they had such great service and they want to show that they are thrilled (besides tipping, they may talk to the manager and praise the clerk, or when they get home, write a letter to the store’s HQ). In this scenerio, everyone wins, everyone is happy and there were absolutely no expectations from the retail store clerk or the store itself.

    In the restaurant industry, it has come to be an accepted belief that, for some reason, the customer is made to feel responsible to tip their servers generously because everyone knows their wages are low and that no one can actually live off of them. That is wrong on so many levels! Tipping is because you have had a good experience at the restaurant… good food, good environment (clean, attention paid to how everything is handled, etc) and good service from your server. When this happens, then obviously how much one tips is a personal matter, but the tip is a “thank you” not a “here, let me help you pay your rent this month”. If I have had good service and I’m leaving a restaurant a fed and happy camper, then I have no qualms about tipping 20% – 25%. I believe a job well done and to my satisfaction is worth a decent thank you. If the service was just mediocre… nothing to complain about but nothing to make me think “I like this server and how they treat their customers!”, then I won’t be so gung ho on the tip… I’ll leave 15% – 20%. But if the service is BAD and by bad, I mean the server has managed to single-handedly change the mood I came into the restaurant with (happy, looking forward to a nice meal) to one where I feel anger, stress and want to speak to someone about the lack of service I got (or the bad service I got), then I am sure as heck not going to reward them for ruining my mood/evening. It is NOT my duty or responsibility to supplement their income by rewarding bad service. It should NOT be difficult to have a good attitude when you go to work, especially if that attitude is going to affect how much tax-free money you will be going home with at the end of your shift (yes, I know they are to declare their tips at tax time, but you, I and everyone else knows a “guesstimate” is put on the forms and it is a lot lower than what they make in tips in a year).

    Tips are a perk of the job. If you put the effort in, you will get good tips. If you couldn’t care less and don’t bother, then you should not be surprised when you aren’t getting tips for your service. Only in North America are we so spoilt that we expect to be rewarded for bad attitude and bad service. And since when did we expect the customer be responsible for subsidizing servers’ wages whether they are good servers or bad? I don’t own a restaurant and for all the restaurants I go to, I have had no say in who gets hired… so why is it my responsibility to supplement their wages?

    Hey, if you give me good service, you will be happy that I’m your customer because I do believe in thanking and rewarding good service. If you treat me like I’m just another nuisance in your work day, then I’ll live up to your expectations and be a nuisance.

    • G. Hayes says:

      I agree with your comments, completely. I’ve worked, in between office and other customer service positions, as a waitress, so I speak with experience. I worked hard to give good service as a waitress, and never did I believe or accept the idea/attitude it was the customers “duty” to pay or supplement my wage. I still don’t believe that. This is an American custom and it’s yet another I do not agree with despite my being native to this country. My hourly rate was my wage, all tips were a much appreciated bonus.

    • Pam says:

      You are right on with your comments. Nothing more to be said!

  2. Michael says:

    I have to say I disagree with leaving a 15% tip for bad service. I worked as a Waiter in college an I can say from first hand experience that someone in the service industry knows very well that their tip is based on how well they serve the customer. However, leaving no tip at all does no good to anyone, not even if you are trying to say you had bad service. As I said, anyone in the service industry know their tip is based on how well they served the customer, so if you leave 15%+ they know they served you well, if you leave something in around a single dollar, they know you purposely left that small amount and that you felt you did not get good service.

    Having worked as a waiter I know how hard it can be to please some people and how hard the job can be so I often leave generous 20%+ tips for good service and 15% for just OK service, but if I get bad service I have no problem leaving a very small tip.

    I feel that the Tip is a part of the cost of a meal/service, but I also feel that good service is part of what I’m paying for and if I don’t get all of what I’m paying for then I don’t expect to pay full price (minimum 15% tip).

  3. DPOma says:

    I am normally a very generous tipper. On one occasion, however, the server took our order, someone else served it even though our server was observed smoking and chatting 10 feet away, she never came to check on beverages that needed to be refilled; I had to ask another server to get our check, and OUR server came and slammed it down in front of me and walked away.

    I left one penny…no tip could be interpreted as forgetting to tip; one penny reflected my opinion of her service. I left a note about the non-existent service.

    As my family and I were in the parking lot en route to our car, the server came outside and yelled “Hey, a——, thanks for the tip!”

    I wrote a letter to the manager of the facility, no response. Local newspaper columns contained complaints from other customers of the facility, but it still is open. I’ll never go back and have no regret for the monetary expression of my dissatisfaction.

  4. Stu says:

    Talking to the manager might have worked years ago, but it’s not likely to get you very far these days. Just as a good manager improves the workers under their supervision, bad managers are quite often the cause of the problem. They are often poorly-trained and underpaid themselves, with no incentive to satisfy disgruntled customers. But they are paid a salary, so they get paid the same amount no matter what the service quality might be. The best you can do is contact the owner, who is likely to be the only “manager” with a vested interest in the best possible service. But the owner is often nowhere to be seen.

    Personally, I worked my share of service jobs in high school and college. If I screwed up an order, or didn’t perform my job very well, I fully expected to receive a lower (or no) tip. But in this world of inflated egos and attitude of entitlement, that apparently is no longer true. For good service, I am a very generous tipper. But for bad service, I don’t hesitate to deduct 5% or 10% from the tip. I am careful to penalize only for things within the server’s control, but I won’t pay out my hard-earned money for a poor job.

  5. Ken says:

    I worked restaurants for years and you are supposed to be part of the customers dining experience. That is supposed to be a positive experience and if you don’t help the customer enjoy his/her meal you should not be rewarded with a tip. No ifs, ands or buts about it.

  6. JESS K says:

    Many people are not aware, but the word TIP is actually a acronym: T.I.P. meaning To Insure Promptness. So that simply means that if the service is poor, not prompt, then there is no reason to leave a gratuity. In many countries around the world tips are NOT part of the culture, and in some it is an insult. One should only leave a gratuity when service is above average, otherwise rewarding someone for poor service leaves the impression that poor service is acceptable. If it is really bad I leave a penny, or the smallest ‘change’ denomination I happen to have in my pocket. If one rewards a misbehaving child for poor attitude or manners, then the child learns very quickly they do not have to excel at anything! So, NO! definitely do not T.I.P. for bad service. If you give a beggar on the street money there is no guarantee they will spend it on food, but probably on liquor or drugs.

  7. John L says:

    As far as the argument of tipping inapropriately well for poor servicebecause tips are “pooled” I disagree. Peer pressure is a great motivator. When one server’s poor service is reflected in the $$$ for the pool members they will all notice and encourage the offending party to take corrective action. I did the penny tip thing once and was confronted by the server at the cashier station. The manager was standing there and heard my reply that I felt the tip was appropriate to the quality of service provided. I don’t know what ensued, as I left immediately after the confrontation, but I felt that my actions were justiified in that one isolated case. Generally even poor service deserves a modest tip. Disappointment with the quality of the food should not be held against the server – a tip should reflect your satisfaction with the “service”. Food quality and preparation should be discussed quietly with the management.

  8. Jim Lever says:

    I, too, agree that a service tip should be left; however, I suggest leaving either your signed credit card charge or the cash tip with the manager/owner along with your evaluation of the server’s performance. One reason is that, in some establishments, there is a common “tip” pool. So, by not leaving your tip, you are hurting all the wait staff who will pay income taxes on their estimated tip income.
    Jim Lever
    Tifton, GA

  9. Matt says:

    As a server I’ll admit there are times where I’ve shot myself in the foot and gave bad service… thing is every server has to “Tip out,” to the support staff. I have to tip out four percent of my total sales so if you don’t tip me you’re also stiffing the bussers, bar, back waiter and other staff.

    Also the industry standard is 20 percent for restaurants, not 15. Also tips don’t supplement my salary they are 100 percent of my income. For those who don’t know servers get paid $2.13 an hour, which hasn’t gone up since the early 1990s. If I don’t get tipped I don’t eat.

  10. david wayne osedach says:

    I have had service whre I’ve been actually ignored by the waitstaff for half an hour. When my meal finally came I went to the men’s room to wash my hands and
    my food was “gone” from the table when I got back.

    No 15%. No 10% NO ZERO PER CENT tip did I leave!

  11. JOSEPH says:

    Depends I may reduce tip amount to 10% I usually leav3 20% to 25%
    I then will blog them on a website I hate to see others get burned

  12. angela says:

    I completely disagree with tipping for bad service. Pitty tipping is inappropriate and does nothing to encourage good service. I have worked as a server and a bartender and never expected people to tip to subsidize my wages, only to thank me for good service. The odd customer leaves no tip and some leave more than you expect. In the end as long as you are doing a good job that is all that matters.
    When I left my serving job to work as a receptionist, I worked way harder, took a lot of crap from customers who were angry with other people, coworkers etc…. despite the fact that I had to work 10 times harder at my customer service skills to make everyone happy – my pay was very very minimally higher than as a server and NO tips. That is all fine and I made the choice, but then when I go out in the evening and have shitty service at a restaurant etc and I am expected to leave my hard earned money for some server who does the bare minimum, forget it.

    As a server, even if several customers leave no tip, you still end up making more than many other entry level positions that do not expect tips. People who receive tips need to stop having such a sense of entitlement for something that is meant as a sign of gratuity for good service.

    And the idea that those people need to ‘cash out’ to others, if you aren’t making enough in tips and its coming out of your own wallet, time to find a new job or start being better at the one you have.

  13. Rara says:

    Yeah well, it’s my money and it’s not leaving my wallet if I got crappy service. Let Ms. Manners tip on my behalf for the sake of manners.

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