Science Shows Diners Don't Like Automatic Gratuities—even When They're Happy With Service

Is it fair to say that we all agree that the tipping system in American restaurants is archaic and silly and that servers should get paid a real salary just like every other worker in this country? (Benefits, too, but that's a whole other issue.) Good. Last month we told you about how some restaurant owners are trying to rebuild the system to give their workers fair salaries, including ending tipping altogether in favor of service fees or higher menu prices. At the same time, though, several other restaurants that had already eliminated tipping (most notably those in Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group in New York City) had gone back to it. Customers were oddly attached to the practice of tipping. And they really, really disliked automatic gratuities.

Now a series of studies out of Washington State University that will soon be published in the Journal Of Service Marketing proves how much customers hate automatic gratuities—not just when the service is bad and undeserving, but even more when the service is good.

"People think non-voluntary tipping systems are unpopular because customers can't punish servers for poor quality service," Jeff Joireman, one of the authors of the study, said in a press release. But when the service was high, he said, "we found that customers were equally frustrated by non-voluntary tipping — this time because they couldn't reward their servers." (The press release didn't describe the various studies used to come to this conclusion.)

Ismail Karabas, another researcher who worked on the project, calls this "blocked gratitude." The customers resent the loss of control, and this detracts from the overall restaurant experience. "High-quality service does not compensate for the negative customer response to a non-voluntary tipping system," he said.

Karabas suggested restaurants get around the problem by reframing the automatic gratuity by telling customers "Thank you for tipping your server 18% today," or by providing other opportunities for customers to reward servers, like comment cards or voting for a server of the month. Because nothing will warm a customer's heart like seeing their favorite server get the best parking spot in the lot.