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Does tipping encourage better service? Here's what experts say

People dine at a restaurant in Vancouver on Sept. 21, 2021. (Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press) People dine at a restaurant in Vancouver on Sept. 21, 2021. (Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press)
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Customers are expected to tip in many situations, but some doubt the practice motivates workers to provide exceptional service.

Bev Burgess, a retired teacher from Medicine Hat, Alta., is among the Canadians who say they're no longer sure that there's a correlation and are raising questions about tipping culture in Canada.

She says she's been prompted to tip when merely buying ice cream at a food truck and when her grandchildren get haircuts. She says she's also expected to tip when she gets her nails done and gets oil changes, and it all adds up.

"I think this whole tipping business has gotten way out of hand," Burgess said in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca.

What adds to her frustration is situations when she has no choice. In one case, she said, she was automatically charged 14 per cent for a tip, even though she didn't receive her meal until nearly all her companions were finished eating.

Burgess said she still usually tips workers when given a choice, but it's because she feels like it's an obligation, not necessarily because the service she received met or exceeded expectations.

"I don't think we as customers should be made to feel we have to supplement their income. I think that's wrong," Burgess said. She says workers do deserve the extra money, but she believes employers should provide them with living wages. "I'm already paying them for a service they are charging me (for). Why should I have to give them extra money? ... They should do a good job whether they get a tip or not."

Research: Tipping regardless of quality

Although tipping is meant to empower customers and motivate workers to deliver quality service, some question whether the prevalent practice actually enhances customers' experience.

Research doesn't suggest a strong correlation between the quality of service and the size of the tip, says Mike von Massow, food economist and professor at the University of Guelph.

"That means that most of us tip regardless of whether we thought the service was good or not," von Massow said in a video interview with CTVNews.ca. "If we have bad service, we still feel like we should tip."

Tipping stereotypes

On the flip side, research suggests a strong connection between the expected tip and quality of service even before a customer is served.

"So a server will evaluate a table and decide how much they expect to tip from that group and then cater service to that expectation," von Massow explained. "It really is relatively arbitrary. ... The expectation of the tip can affect the quality of service based on the preconceived notion or a stereotype on how good a tipper that person's going to be."

White, middle-aged men in suits tend to get better service because they are viewed as better tippers, regardless of whether that is true, he said.

Those perceived as bad tippers -- generally women, younger people and people of colour --- will get worse service.

The discriminatory practice is widespread in Canada and other places around the world where tipping exists, he said.

'More positive experience' 

In some cases, tipping is still connected to better customer service regardless of the tipping stereotypes, research suggests.

"We do say when you go into a restaurant, show your appreciation, encourage the people to be better," said Ian Tostenson, president and CEO of the British Columbia Restaurant and Food Services Association in Vancouver. "And so tips, in my opinion, lead to more positive experience."

One example he pointed to is prominent American restaurateur Danny Meyer's decision to end tipping in 2015, including the tip in the overall food price instead. But Meyer's experiment didn't last long and neither did those of other New York restaurateurs who soon found that many customers and servers preferred tipping, The New York Times reported.

"We're used to it (in North America)," Tostenson said. "We believe that we get a better service."

Workers who offer added value, such as friendly and fast service, and develop "an emotional bond" with customers usually expect to get tips, he added.

"(Tipping) does create a better experience for the guest because they feel much more in control, and certainly for the server because they go, 'Yeah, if I kind of turn it on here a little bit, I'm going to be rewarded better than (if) it was just a flat fee.'"

Essentially, with both parties believing their behaviour impacts each other, they end up having a better experience.

But Tostenson said he believes tipping won't boost customer service in cases where it's expected without any added service.

"So we're seeing situations like private liquor stores, for example, where you bring your wine to the counter and all the person does is charge you for it. And all of a sudden you get (a tip prompt) saying, 'Do you want to tip?'"

Customers shouldn't tip in those cases, nor should they tip if they receive poor service, even if it means the employee will lose out financially, Tostenson said.

"Don't just tip for the sake of tipping if you have a bad experience in a restaurant in Canada. ... You should also make it clear as to why you decided not to provide that tip to a manager, or certainly to a minimum, to the server."

'Trained not to tip' 

Studies suggest many customers feel that tipping enhances their own retail experience, said Sylvain Charlebois, professor and director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

"They actually are in control of their experience and the quality of the service that they actually get," said Charlebois, who is doing a study on tipping fatigue.

A survey done by his university found that only 27 per cent of Canadians polled said they would appreciate tips being already included in menu prices, similar to Meyers's experiment.

"The vast majority of Canadians actually still appreciate the old-fashioned way of allowing patrons to tip whoever they want and with how much money they want," he said.

However, tipping has become "overused," and it's no longer about empowering consumers to reward or punish performance, he said.

"Sometimes, people are being asked to pay for tipping even before the service is being is provided. I actually think tipping is less and less about performance (and) quality but more so about wage subsidy. And that really would undermine the value of tipping altogether."

At the same time, people are slowly feeling less guilty if they don't tip, he said.

"Now you're prompted so many times to tip that people are being trained not to tip," Charlebois said.

"It's being prompted even at the coffee shop where they don't serve you, you just pay for something," he listed as an example of why some are becoming desensitized to choosing "no."

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