Tipping remains important but are attitudes shifting?

Canadians largely recognize that tipping is becoming increasingly important for the foodservice and hospitality industry amid the devastating impacts of COVID-19. However, there are some signs that attitudes may be changing.

Foodservice and hospitality has always relied on tipping to a significant extent. The pandemic, though, is causing something of a reevaluation of how the industry revolves around gratuities and patrons’ generosity.

As bar and wait staff, delivery drivers, and other employees in the industry have essentially become a form of frontline worker, Canadians are being urged to continue tipping, and to be more generous wherever they can. But some consumers, and some restaurants, are moving in the other direction.

Assessing habits and attitudes

A new preliminary report from Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab has examined Canadian perceptions of tipping habits and how they have shifted during the pandemic.

The report surveyed 990 Canadians in April 2021 and found that most see tipping as being beneficial “in the form of social relatedness, a feeling of being in control and perceiving that tipping has a positive impact on others”.

20 per cent of respondents said they intend to tip more after the pandemic.

34 per cent feel that tipping motivates workers, 30 per cent say it makes the job worth doing, 19 per cent think the practice of tipping should be regulated, and 17 per cent think it should be prohibited altogether.

When asked about the option of including tipping in service charges, 37 per cent of people were in support while 32 per cent opposed the idea.

Poppy Nicolette Riddle, research associate at the Lab, says that the report and the research shows that many Canadians recognize that a significant proportion of people have tip-dependent careers or income, and see tipping as part of social engagement.

However, others seem to believe that the culture of tipping holds back progress and evolution of the restaurant industry. “[The industry] is trying to go back to the exact same structure that was before, and it’s putting this exact same population at risk when the next large-scale crisis comes,” Riddle says. “So it is a really complex discussion and … there’s not an easy answer out there right now.”

Canadians mainly see tipping as an act of generosity, with 53.4 per cent indicating they feel that way in the survey. However, a large minority of 46.6 per cent see it as entirely or mostly an obligation, while even more (48 per cent) believe the social obligation to tip well has increased during COVID-19.

Overall, nearly three-quarters (71 per cent) of respondents don’t anticipate changing the way they tip after the pandemic. Of the 20 per cent who say they will tip more, 58 per cent say they feel happy when tipping.

That was quite surprising, notes Riddle, “because some of the other questions that I had leading into it gave me the sense that (people had) a negative feeling when anticipating having to tip more.”

Time to go tip-free?

The survey found that only 3 per cent of participants plan to stop tipping altogether.

While not many of the respondents from the Lab’s survey support an outright no-tipping policy, right now, some restaurants are experimenting with going tip-free.

Data has suggested that tipping can perpetuate inequalities of class, gender, race, and sexuality, and that some public opinion believes it is reminiscent of outdated social practices and even servitude.

The pandemic has offered the chance for operators to rethink their processes and some restaurants have recently adopted no-tipping policies, such as Toronto’s Avelo, Burdock Brewery, Richmond Station, and Ten.

Sylvain Charlebois, senior director of Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytical Sciences Laboratory, says the fact that establishments are questioning or trying such new solutions is a sign that a problem is being recognized within the industry.

In particular, he suggests that tipping culture can and does breed a toxic environment in some respects.

“The random tipping culture often damages the work environment if it is already toxic,” Charlebois says. “This custom can encourage discrimination or inequities among employees on the same team.”

He adds that wait or bar staff can often be penalized by patrons for something they can’t control, such as food being too cold, and that the level of tip given is often based on very suggestive reasons such as a person’s appearance or attire.

Charlebois himself supports the elimination of tipping with the main motivation of promoting fairness. However, he acknowledges that opinion is not for everyone.

By combining the respondents to the survey who believe tipping should be either regulated or abolished, the report suggests that a significant minority of Canadians (36 per cent) feel negatively in some respect towards the practice.

That, says Riddle, could be an indication that a change in the practical approach to tipping could receive social support.