Where Does the Practice of Tipping Staff End?

I just stopped off at a garage next to the highway to fill up my car and grab some breakfast. Petrol cost me R360, plus a R10 tip, breakfast was R63 plus a R17 tip. I also gave the roaming car park attendant another R5 for “looking after my car.

So in a 20-minute experience I forked out an additional R32 in tips. This is an everyday occurrence, and between my wife and I we spend around R1000 on tips – every month! On the one hand I know I must help people less fortunate than me, but in these times of austerity, I sometimes wonder.

Often I tip waiters, petrol jockeys, car park attendants, till packers, baggage handlers, taxi drivers, hotel porters and even “entertainers” at traffic lights because I feel they deserve it. They smile, have good manners, and go out of their way to help me, or to make my life a little easier. One hotel porter in Blantyre, Malawi, on discovering that my television wasn’t working, actually brought me a brand new TV set from the storeroom – still wrapped in the box – at 10:00 pm and set it all up! I handed over a large tip with pleasure – even though I probably fell asleep 20 minutes later.

On holiday a few years ago, a waitress at the Hilton Resort in Mauritius spent a lot of time with my young son, walking him around at the resort and even sitting at our table in the evenings to feed him “…_so you can have the same course at the same time instead of popping up to the buffet one at a time._" There’s a big sign in the reception area that says it is not obligatory to tip the staff, but if a guest wants to do so, they are welcome to put money in an envelope, and it will be distributed amongst all the staff. But I just could not do that, so I prepared two envelopes, one for Marie-Jean and one for the rest.

When I looked for her at the end of our trip to hand over the tip, she said that it was all really unnecessary, and she wanted to share it with everyone else. As I handed it over to her, I told her how special she was, and how she had made the trip a truly memorable one for us. I will never forget her reply: “_But sir that is my job. I am here to serve and to be kind._” I wanted to hug her for being so nice.

The toilet attendant at the departure terminal at Cape Town International Airport is a lovely man who is proud to be a toilet cleaner. Aaron always has a big welcoming smile on his face, and when passengers walk in he says, “Welcome to my office!” It is impossible to ignore him when he has such a positive outlook on life.

But more often than not the people to whom I give tips don’t deserve it. I do it because it seems obligatory, no matter what the service. I am resentful about giving tips to people who haven’t earned it nor even tried to help me. At a London restaurant I had an incredibly unfriendly waitress who could hardly speak English take my order in the most sullen manner – and then predictably messing it up. Then she was impossible to find again, and seemed reluctant to even give me my bill. When I paid – foolishly leaving an undeserved 5% tip – she thunderously looked at me as if I was the one with the problem.

In the USA, it is also almost obligatory to leave a 15% tip, and in one restaurant in Dallas the owner openly admitted that he consciously underpaid the staff, because they would in any event earn a lot more in tips. Besides, he told me, it was a good incentive for them to give better service. Funny thing was, I couldn’t see the “better service” in any way. I think the staff were just too upset with him.

One of my mates, Mark, has a good rule. As he walks into a restaurant, his mind is made up to give a generous 15% tip – if things go well. (In South Africa, around 10% is mostly accepted.) However, for every time something goes even slightly wrong that affects his positive experience, he takes 2% off that 15%. If five little things go wrong, the waiter may get a 5% tip.

I am also resentful because most owners and managers of businesses don’t discourage this practice, even displaying it on menus and in signs, because they can then feel good about neglecting to pay their staff a decent salary. I’ve been a waiter a few times in my life, (when I was a lot younger,) and I can tell you that it’s a very demeaning practice. What also didn’t happen in my day is that waiters could earn a “commission” for every item what they sold – even if that meant irritating customers by pestering them to to buy more, more, more.

The worst story about tipping that I ever heard luckily didn’t happen to me, or I would probably have burst a blood vessel. A friend of mine needed some legal work done in Europe, and a final contract was drawn up. The law demands that the contract must be read through in full in the presence of both parties, so they all sat in the attorney’s office while the administration clerk read through every word in a foreign language. Half an hour later, it was all over, the contract was signed, and everyone stood up to shake hands. Then the lawyer took my friend aside and whispered, “_It is customary to leave something for the administration clerk._” Too shocked to fight back, Byron scratched around in his wallet and handed over 30 Euros, (about R450 in today’s value.)

Where does it all end? Will we hand over a tip to a clerk in a government department because they expedited a passport? Must I put some money in an envelope for the mechanic who worked on my car? And what about the assistant who prints and binds the course notes on my seminars? Or perhaps the next time I’m flying I should slip the pilot a banknote or two for getting us to the destination safely.

Come to think of it, I think I’m going to pass round a hat for extra “voluntary donations” every time I do a talk or a workshop at a conference! (Not.)


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