Holona Ochs

The Role of Tipping

Tipping. It’s one of life’s great social mysteries. Why tip musicians in the subway and not at the Met? Whether it’s gratuity for our stylist or the server at our favorite restaurant, we wonder how much is enough or too much?

Holona Ochs, assistant professor of political science, finds that tips are a weak signal of quality and not an effective monitoring mechanism. Her research addresses tipping customs and sheds new light on workplace contentment.

The co-author of Gratuity: A Contextual Understanding of Tipping Norms from the Perspective of Tipped Employees, she and Richard Seltzer of Howard University interviewed 425 people in 50 occupational categories, from restaurant staff to adult entertainers. Respondents gave their perspective on their work and compensation. The act of tipping is an act of the client trusting and investing in another’s expertise, says Ochs, but she adds that with tips, the price is set by the customer and not necessarily connected to the quality of service but conformity to a social code, reinforcing the existing status hierarchy.

“People appear to obey the rules of tipping norms for social and emotional reasons rather than strictly rational reasons. Tipping demonstrates status and is part of economic redistribution in the market. People adhere to tipping norms because of the feelings evoked by conformity or to avoid social disapproval.”

The narratives reveal a general trend in the experiences of tipped employees regarding demographic differences in compliance to tipping norms. In some ways, the most fascinating aspects of these narratives are the perceptual errors themselves, she says. The trend is that tipped employees take more note of demographic differences among clients than they notice differences in service quality.

Tips are a weak signal of quality and not an effective monitoring mechanism.

“One of the ways people act out biases is through tipping. If a person doesn’t like you, they don’t necessarily have to say it’s about race or class. One may dislike a person, tip them less, and say it’s because they’re not as good with people. In addition, the behavior of different people is classified and judged disparately. When some people barter, they are deemed miserly or shrewd, but when servers expect reciprocity —free drinks for example — from other servers for higher tips, it is described as an ‘ethic?’”

Because tipping is a poor indicator of performance, management must create an environment of trust with employees, she says. Tipped employees are more contented when they feel they are trusted by managers and that their work quality is not judged on gratuity amounts. The absence of trust contributes to a work environment that imposes unnecessary costs on employees and likely affects the customer experiences.

“Management strategies that provide employees with effective training and support are more likely to facilitate a work environment that compensates for the emotional cost of their labor, “says Ochs. “Management should also consider the value-added by confronting stereotypes that impact job performance. Growing a business starts with investing in employees, and those employees also have to recognize the potential in every opportunity.”