Disclaimer: please note that this is all my own opinion, and is in no way (except where explicitly noted) meant as a criticism of how others do business.
Tipping in general serves several purposes:
- It allows employers to pass off the cost of service onto the consumer.
- It makes a pay structure more flexible, so that employees are paid more during busy and hectic times, and paid less when work is slower and easier.
- It allows consumers to reward excellent service with something a little extra, and conversely punish poor service with a poor tip or none at all.
First, I'd like to critically address these three elements in a general context not specific to my business or even to the massage industry:
1. Cost of Service
Whatever system is used to compensate employees for their time, the wages paid to service staff is part of the cost of providing that service (whether the service is a massage, food, or something else). In a typical wage system, a business owner subtracts the costs (including the wages of staff) from the net proceeds, and the remainder is their profit. In order to attract enough consumers to pay off their fixed costs and make some profit, they have to set a price point low enough that consumers will consider it a good value, but high enough to maintain a profit margin over the per-customer costs. You might say, then, that the customer is ALWAYS paying the cost of service, because it is included in the total amount billed to them, less the owner's profit margin. This is true.
In comes the tipping system. By paying employees far less than their labor is worth (in some cases virtually nothing), owners are able to choose a much lower price point, enticing more customers into their business. They then expect you to pay for their employees' labor, but don't include the amount on your bill: it's optional, so it doesn't necessarily factor into your decision about whether to purchase a service, or which business to purchase it from.
Either way, the consumer is paying the cost of service. But in a system with tipping, the consumer is offered a false picture of what that cost is by a menu price that does not include the full cost of service. Perhaps that seems fair to you, but to me it seems like dishonesty.
2. Labor Flexibility
We all know there is an ebb and flow to business: if you've ever been in a restaurant in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon, you know they're not nearly as busy as they are on a Friday or Saturday night. Paying with tips, rather than wages, allows a business owner to keep staff on hand without losing too much money during the slow times, while rewarding staff who work at the busiest times of day with higher wages (more customers means more tips).
This sounds good in theory, but in my experience working in the foodservice industry, it does not stand up to a reality check. Staff on a slow shift might not see as many customers as staff on a busy shift, but that doesn't mean they don't do as much work. Much of the behind-the-scenes work at a restaurant (cleaning, stocking, food prep, etc) occurs during the slow shift, and in many cases this work is harder, nastier, and generally less-desirable than actually serving customers, no matter how hectic. And it is no less critical to the customers' service experience, even if the customer never meets the employees who do the work!
3. Positive/Negative Reinforcement
For people familiar and comfortable with tipping, this is most often the accepted purpose for tipping: to reward excellent service by leaving a good tip, or to punish poor service by leaving a poor tip or no tip. It is also the most fraught with problems and, to me, the most offensive reason for tipping. Here are, in no particular order, my objections to tipping for this reason:
- Not everybody tips. It is impossible for a server to know if they somehow slighted a customer and need to improve, or if that customer is just cheap.
- Not everybody tips based on quality of service. I haven't got any figures to prove this, but it is widely accepted in the service industry that people who are alluring or charming and give terrible service will be tipped more than those who give excellent service but are unattractive or shy. Sometimes it is subconscious, sometimes it's intentional (and can be all manner of icky), but either way it does not improve service, and can destroy the cohesion of a service team when there is unfair disparities in tip amounts.
- Tips are based on percentage of bill, essentially a sales commission, so the person who is supposed to be serving you now has an incentive to sell to you, turning what should be a service experience into a sales pitch experience. If they are good at their job you won't notice, but you are rewarding them financially for convincing you to spend more money. That's messed up.
- It implies that people in the service industry will not give good service if not given additional incentive to do so. This is a little offensive.
1. Cost of Service
I prefer to be honest and up front about my prices, so the cost of labor is included in the price I list to my clients. If I am not making enough to cover my costs and still feel I've been fairly compensated for my own efforts, I'll raise my prices. Currently I am the sole owner and employee of Warrior Massage, so there is no cost of labor: my profits ARE my wages. If at some point I have employees, I will pay them what their labor is worth, and set prices that still allow me to keep my business running and compensate me for my time running it.
2. Labor Flexibility
I only do bodywork by appointment, and if I have employees at some point, so will they. So this simply isn't an issue.
3. Positive/Negative Reinforcement
As the business owner, my positive reinforcement is for a satisfied customer to return and purchase my services again, not to pay me more for the services already rendered. If a customer feels they received exceptional service and wants to give a little more, there are other ways they can reward me other than paying more than they have been asked to pay: by referring others to my business, by writing positive reviews/ratings, or just by being a pleasant customer. These are all highly rewarding.
If at some point I have employees, I intend to compensate them in a way that encourages doing an excellent job, such as with pay raises, bonuses, and other benefits. Customer feedback will play a role in deciding these things, so satisfied customers can still give back to reward their therapist.
Finally, I'd like to critically address tipping in the specific context of the massage industry, and answer some common pro-tipping objections or questions.
Massage Therapy is a Profession
Don't take this the wrong way: I have the utmost respect for servers, delivery drivers, cooks, bartenders, and others in tipped jobs. But they are not professions. They are vocations, and jobs, but there is a difference. You can check out the wikipedia article on professions for specifics; it's pretty good so I won't belabor the point here. Suffice it to say that those things above are not professions, and massage therapist IS a profession (at least in Washington state).
Other professions include: doctor, lawyer, accountant, physical therapist, nurse, psychologist, engineer, architect, electrician... if you've ever tipped anyone on that list, you're doing it wrong.
Now add massage therapist to that list.
Massage Therapists are Medical Providers
The extent to which this is true varies from state to state, but in Washington state, massage therapists can be compensated by insurance for their work. In the case of private insurance, it is a violation of their contract with the insurance company for a massage therapist to accept any payment from a patient beyond the contractually-accepted copay or coinsurance rate. In the case of state-funded insurance (such as L&I, or Medicare/Medicaid if those were ever to cover massage), it is straight up illegal. Either way, it is unethical.
If you are seeing a massage therapist and paying with insurance, they should NOT be accepting any tips from you. Similarly, if you are tipping your physical therapist, doctor, dentist, chiropractor, or nurse, you should stop immediately. If they have been accepting your tips, you should seek a more ethical medical provider immediately.
Massage Therapists at Spas are Grossly Underpaid
I mean this both in the sense that the disparity between what they should be paid and what they are paid is large, and that it is disgusting.
If you patronize an establishment where tipping is the norm, I encourage you to continue tipping your massage therapist. Because chances are they are not being paid a living wage, much less a wage that fairly compensates them for the educational and financial investment they have put in to being a massage therapist, or for the grueling, injury-inducing labor involved in providing massage therapy (yes it is harder than it looks. MUCH harder, if your therapist is good at making it look easy).
Essentially, if you don't pay them, nobody will.
I'm sure I could go on, but I believe I have answered the question and covered most of the points I wanted to address. If I missed something or confused you, please post your question in the comments below. If I have offended you, please let me know via email or comment so I can ease your woes. If you have a clever retort or objection which obliterates my arguments against tipping, please post it in the comments so that I may refute you, or bow down to your superior logic and change my misguided ways (or maybe we can just disagree).
Comments, questions, objections? Put them in the comments. Thanks!