The prevalence of tipping is simply a fact of society. On several occasions, a friend of mine bemoaned the perceived necessity of tipping a specified amount to restaurant servers while dining out. He would ask the rest of our friends eating together at a restaurant, “When did the expected base tip go from 15 percent to 20 percent?” I’m not concerned so much as when cultural norms like these change, but how they change. Is it regional? Does a trend like this start among a wealthier subset and then trickle down to everyone else?
Most everyone who dines out understands that tipping is part of the unwritten agreement. If you can’t afford to pay and tip, you can’t afford to dine out. This social tradition has what I would expect to be practically full penetration throughout the United States. We’ve come to accept that restaurants do not pay their servers and bus staff a living wage on their own, and it’s the customers’ responsibility to bring that compensation more in line with a level necessary to prevent too much attrition in the industry.
With social media, the customers’ responsibility — or negligence — is clear. If you spend any time on Facebook or Twitter, or if you’ve seen any news programs covering entertainment, you’ve likely seen many incidents in the last year in which a disgruntled, undertipped server shames a celebrity by posting a copy of his or her meal receipt with a low tip. There’s two sides to every story; for every shamed, allegedly cheap celebrity or NFL professional, there is an allegedly disrespectful wait staff. It really doesn’t matter who is “right.” The point is that tipping in a restaurant, and tipping 15 percent to 20 percent for typical service, is a pervasive social expectation.
Hotel housekeepers may not benefit from the same, strong tradition of tipping as restaurant servers. An organization is trying to change that. A Woman’s Nation, an organization whose mission is to ensure that the value of women is recognizes and respected, is leading a program they call “The Envelope Please.” The purpose of the program is to encourage hotel guests to tip housekeepers one to five dollars a night, every night by placing an envelope for that purpose in every guest room.
Marriott is the first hotel brand to sign on.
And the hotel will certainly face significant criticism for doing so. If a hotel company blatantly encourages customers to tip, it is, in a way, admitting that it does not pay its staff a living wage. And if a large international corporation wants its employees to be paid a living wage, shouldn’t it be that corporation’s responsibility to do so? Shouldn’t it also perhaps be the industry’s responsibility to ensure it?
Of course, the idea of raising compensation faces the same old corporate obstacle: “If I raise the wages I pay, I have to raise my prices. I can’t raise my prices because I need to remain competitive.” There’s no doubt that it’s a difficult perspective to be in for a business. I have several friends who are not only small business owners like myself, but who also have a growing employee force, and they face these problems all the time.
I used to say that it’s the business owner’s problem to figure out, and if they can’t remain profitable while paying competitive wages, they have to come up with a different business plan. But I see that it’s often more complicated than that.
I’ll be honest. I haven’t always tipped housekeepers when I’ve stayed in hotels. That’s simply due to the fact that when I began staying hotels on my own, I had no idea at least a portion of hotel guests considered it normal to tip housekeepers. At the same time, I knew it was expected to tip hotel porters; maybe that’s because you see the “bell boy tip” in fictional entertainment so much, but never see the act of leaving a tip for the housekeeper in an envelope on the bed or nightstand.
This lack of understanding is the reason a non-profit organization focusing on the value of women would consider it important to provide some attention towards the option of tipping hotel housekeeping staff. But do housekeepers even need the tips in order to earn a living wage?
I checked Salary.com to put some numbers behind this movement.
In my zip code, a restaurant server gets paid a median hourly wage of $14, which was higher than I expected. A hotel housekeeper receives a rate of $13 an hour. In San Diego, California, both job types are paid a medium of $12 an hour. In Tampa, Florida, they both earn $11. From these figures alone, it seems that both job types require some additional compensation to make up for the industry’s low valuation.
Restaurants also know that customers will tip, so that is a justification for keeping pay low. As the idea of tipping hotel housekeepers becomes more pervasive, hotels may be just as willing to feel justified in the level of wage they pay because they know customers will make up for some of the deficiency.
According to one hotel insider, housekeepers are scheduled, at least in his institution, to clean 15 rooms a day. To a housekeeper, if everyone follows the expected guideline, she could walk away at the end of the day with between $15 and $75. If it costs very little to Marriott to put envelopes in every room every day, it could add up to a lot of extra compensation for housekeepers. If you assume the additional tips raise the effective hourly rate of a housekeeper by $4 a day, a hotel would not be able to match that through its own compensation plan. There’s no way a hotel could easily raise that pay of its housekeeping staff by that much.
With that perspective, it makes sense for hotels to encourage customers to tip. The staff will get a much better deal than the hotel could possibly offer. The only drawback is the potential downstream effect; more reliance on tips in the future might prevent hotels from raising wages competitively.
I’ll be keeping this in mind when I head to Louisiana this week for a conference and stay at the New Orleans Marriott.
Do you tip your housekeeping staff when you stay in a hotel?
Updated January 9, 2018 and originally published September 15, 2014.