Should You Still Tip When Service Is Bad?

Unrecognizable coffee shop customer inserts cash into a tip jar at the checkout counter.
asiseeit / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Now that it’s gotten much safer to do so, dining out can be one of the most pleasurable experiences, removing the burden of cooking and immersing yourself in a delightful environment. It’s a luxury that many people mourned during the worst days of the pandemic. However, bad service can put a damper on a great culinary night out, but before you consider withholding your tip, consider the variety of factors that go on behind the scenes.

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For starters, the federal minimum wage is only $7.25 per hour, which is not a living wage in today’s economy. Worse, under federal law, some employers, depending upon the state, can take what is known as a “tip credit” that allows them to pay food service staff or bartenders as little as $2.13 per hour, with their tips making up the difference to $7.25 per hour. This means that many servers and bartenders rely upon their tips to make ends meet. Before you choose not to leave a tip, think about the following considerations.

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Workers Depend Upon Tips To Survive

Because of the way the restaurant and beverage industries are structured, servers have come to depend upon tips, not as a bonus, but just to earn a living wage. “The majority of restaurant and bar workers rely on tips as their primary source of income,” said Ricardo Pina, a personal finance expert and founder of The Modest Wallet. “By tipping your server or bartender, you contribute to their ability to earn a living wage, which is not always guaranteed by their employers.” 

Servers Often Pay Out Their Tips to Other Staff

If you’re less than pleased with your server and are thinking about withholding a tip, consider an important point: Your tip money is going to more than just one person. “For the restaurant industry specifically, tips often get distributed to other staff members,” said Brian Howard, owner of BarSight Restaurants Systems. “So that means the kitchen, the bussers, the host, all get a share of the tip you provide. Even if the service is bad, or your food isn’t right, it hurts everyone if you don’t tip.”

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He recommends speaking to a manager about your concerns, and leaving a small tip rather than leaving none.

Additionally, since servers often have to pay out a set percentage of their sales to their support staff at the end of each shift, if you don’t tip them, they may take a loss. “The tip economy circulates in the restaurant system across the whole chain that worked together to serve you dinner,” said Jason Wise, senior finance writer at Earth Web. So think of it this way – you give a handsome tip, it’s going to make almost five people happy! 

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Servers Might Just Be Having a Bad Day

Servers are just human, and many of them have a bad day — restaurant and bar work can be grueling. In the early days of the pandemic, many workers felt frustrated by increased demands and poor treatment by patrons and management, while being asked to put their health on the line.

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According to Levon L. Galstyan a CPA associated with Oak View Law Group and a consumer finance expert, “Servers are constantly dealing with children running around and uncaring parents, as well as being pushed around by their managers and dealing with rude customers. It is not difficult to imagine that they are simply having a bad day.”

He said that patrons dining out may also have unrealistic expectations of wanting “to be treated like royalty.” But servers have to deal with the general public all day. “Consider the variety of demanding, difficult, and nefarious customers they face on a daily basis. Most people are unaware of how little a server earns per hour, and sometimes the taxes are so high that they do not even receive a check.”

Servers Might Not Be Responsible for the Bad Service

Your server is often the person who bears the brunt of difficulties happening in the kitchen and beyond, even when it isn’t their fault; so don’t rush to penalize your server for what you perceive as bad service.

“Tips should be irrelevant to what sort of service you received because of one basic reason: decision making hardly involves the waiters or servers so in 90% of the cases the poor service is because of the overall poor management, kitchen staff, or just a bad day,” Wise said. “The only thing the server is responsible for is their attitude and if that’s off, well, there could be a million personal reasons behind it. Let it go and hand in the tip.”

You Should Always Tip Something, Even If Not 20%

While 20% is the gold standard for a good tip, you can leave less if necessary, as long as you leave something. Experts suggest tipping is just the cost of doing business when going to a restaurant, regardless of service. 

“To give their customers excellent service, bartenders and servers put a lot of effort,” said Jason Porter, a senior investment manager at Scottish Heritage SG. “They frequently manage several duties and deal with many customer service concerns. The least you can do is show your gratitude by contributing a little extra money.”

Even if the meal is bad, Porter said he still tips the server because it’s not their responsibility. “Furthermore, poor service is not a good reason to leave a little or no tip. You should always tip at least 15% when you receive bad service. Better service demands more.”

Consider Talking With the Server or Management

Remember that a lot of problems can be solved with simple communication. Galstyan urges, “Speak with your server if you receive truly appalling service. Before you decide to cut a server’s tip, you should first determine whether it was your server’s fault or the fault of the hostess or kitchen staff.”

In a rare circumstance where a server is hostile or harassing, it may be OK not to tip, though these situations are rare. Even in these cases, a discussion with the management might solve the issue, and your tip will still benefit the other workers behind that server.

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About the Author

Jordan Rosenfeld is a freelance writer and author of nine books. She holds a B.A. from Sonoma State University and an MFA from Bennington College. Her articles and essays about finances and other topics has appeared in a wide range of publications and clients, including The Atlantic, The Billfold, Good Magazine, GoBanking Rates, Daily Worth, Quartz, Medical Economics, The New York Times, Ozy, Paypal, The Washington Post and for numerous business clients. As someone who had to learn many of her lessons about money the hard way, she enjoys writing about personal finance to empower and educate people on how to make the most of what they have and live a better quality of life.

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