Should You Still Tip When Service Is Bad?

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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. 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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Find Out: How Much To Tip When Traveling to These 25 Countries

For starters, the federal minimum wage is only $7.25 per hour, 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. “These workers are paid way below the minimum wage,” said Scott Hasting, CFA and co-founder of BetWorthy LLC. “Hence, it’s a social responsibility for customers to tip. Tipping even if you experienced bad service will just be an act of goodwill in the hopes that the service will be improved the next time.”

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, said Brooke Frederick, blogger at Minimalist Mama and a former server, bartender, hostess and staff trainer

“While the restaurant, bar or hotel set their own tip-out percentage, it generally varies between 4% to 10% of sales. What that means is that if you go into a restaurant and your meal ends up coming to $100, and you choose not to leave a tip, the person who serves you will have to pay $10 out of their own pocket to fund your dining experience.”

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 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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The difference between other jobs and food service is that servers get financially penalized for their bad days, said Dragos Badea, CEO at Yarooms. “Consider all the times you yourself didn’t do a stellar job at work. Were you docked a portion of your salary for every mistake? It’s a high pressure environment to be a waiter, so some compassion and understanding should be in order.”

Related: How Much Should You Tip Your Delivery Driver?

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.

Frederick points out, “Often times what someone may interpret as bad service is outside of the server’s control.”  For example, “Perhaps the hostess didn’t let the server know that they sat you, so had to wait too long to be greeted. Maybe the bartender on the shift before didn’t refill the pineapple juice, and now there’s a delay on your cocktail.”

Helpful: Got a Terrible Tipper in Your Life? How To Deal With Them

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, Badea said. He suggests tipping is just the cost of doing business when going to a restaurant, regardless of service. “It should be factored into your bill when dining out, although you can still go above that for exceptional service.”

Robert Johnson, founder of Sawinery, suggests that you could adopt a rule of thumb to leave “15% to 20% for good service, 10% for acceptable service and somewhere between 5% and 10% for poor service.”

However, given the variety of reasons why poor service can occur, James Diel, founder and CEO of Textel and a finance expert, suggests, “Give your server the benefit of the doubt and look at the environment around you. Is the restaurant understaffed? Does your server seem stressed? Have some compassion and leaving them at least 18% might even be enough to boost their spirits and turn their day around.”

Find Out: How Much Do You Pay or Tip a House Sitter?

Consider Talking With the Server or Management

Remember that a lot of problems can be solved with simple communication. Michael Outar, owner of, a personal finance website, suggests, “It’s best to talk to the server first and express your concerns about the service you are receiving to see if they can improve the level of service, if not then bring it up to a supervisor or manager. You can always request a new server if the service doesn’t improve. These are all things to do before skipping out on the tip.”

In a rare circumstance where a server is hostile or harassing, Doug Miles, co-founder of youtip, suggests it may be OK not to tip, though he finds these situations 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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Last updated: Oct. 13, 2021

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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