The Complimentary Room Service Tip Dilemma

I don’t know why these ethics conundrums always attack when I’m on the road, but they do.

Today I am briefly in Atlantic City on business, and last night, just prior to a terrible night’s sleep, I put out one of those door-hangers with a breakfast order on it, to be delivered at 7:30 AM. The room’s pen didn’t work until I wrote over my room number a few times: I thought the 7 in “702” looked a little funky, but it was definitely a seven. Or so I thought: 7:30, then 7:45 rolled around the next morning, and no breakfast.  When I called Room Service, they explained that they thought I had written 4o2, hence no room service.

What? First of all, it didn’t look like a 4. Second, my name was still on the thing: if there was any question about the room, why wouldn’t they check using my name?

After giving Room Service some well-deserved grief, I was told that my order would be up “in a minute.” A minute turned out to be 20 minutes, but a nice young woman eventually arrived with my coffee and pancakes, and told me that management was paying for breakfast.

Hmmm…did this mean she lost her tip? It seemed churlish to ask her, so I said, “Well, they won’t be paying your tip (though for all I know they would), so here…” and I dug into my wallet for a few dollars. But I didn’t have a few dollars. I had a one, a ten, and a bunch of twenties. Giving her a one would look cheap (though it well might have been a tip on top of the one she would get from my order anyway), and a ten was excessive. I gave her the ten.

Now I’m wondering: can I get reimbursed for that? My client is paying for the room, and the comped breakfast actually was a gift to him, not me. The ten dollar tip, though, was entirely discretionary on my part, and I usually don’t ask for travel reimbursements for expenses like that.  So the comped breakfast is going to benefit my server, unjustly enrich my client, and cost me an extra ten bucks.

It doesn’t seem fair, somehow. Well, my server’s smile when I gave her the ten dollar bill was almost worth it.



41 thoughts on “The Complimentary Room Service Tip Dilemma

      • I think you missed the point; I was talking about actively choosing, after the fact, to consider it a worthwhile act. You chose to do what you thought was the “right thing” at that moment in time based on who you are, accept that you made the right choice and move on.

        • “Paying it forward.” “Giving back.” Ugh. Authentic Frontier Gibberish. The only people who need to give back are people who’ve stolen something. What does “pay iit forward” even mean in plain English? A cute twist on “pay it back?” Again. Why?

          I’m more interested in giving to my kids and grandkids. Without having the government confiscate a bunch of it after my wife and I have already paid ordinary income on the money and then capital gains on the appreciation.

          • It IS gibberish. It was particularly galling gibberish when my first boss talked to the office about “giving back” to the community and other charitable activity when he paid the associates less than the judges paid their law clerks – so one associate who had come out of a clerkship took a pay cut, and another (me) had come in on the promise of a raise after a year which of course there were insufficient funds for. Both of us were barely clearing enough to make ends meet between rent, car payments, paying back student loans, and groceries. Yet this guy tells us both to “dig deep” to come up with $100 each for presents for some family they picked.

            • Forced charity isn’t charity. It’s guilt-laden robbery. How did this guy know that you weren’t supporting some family living in poverty in Mumbai? Offices or organizations that want to give something must NEVER keep track of who does and doesn’t give. When my choir and I decide to give flowers or something to someone who is ill or whatever, we don’t keep track, and EVERYBODY signs the card, regardless.

              • This guy knew damn well what he was paying us, and he knew damn well that it didn’t crack $30K. He also drove a Lexus that was not yet three years old, owned a huge house on a lake in Fulton County, NY, with a hot tub and whirlpool, where he went from Thursday night to Monday night May to September, and went to Europe for 3 weeks every year.

                I’m not saying that it was wrong for him to do that, it was his firm and his money, which he was free to spend as he saw fit. However, I think demanding a fairly large (bear in mind this is 20 years ago, so $100 was more like $150) charitable donation around the holidays, when people’s budgets are stretched as is, from employees you know you don’t pay that well, who you just turned down for a raise, who know what kind of lifestyle you live, shows that you are either completely self-unaware or that you are fully self-aware and just don’t give a damn.

                I am certain in this case that my old boss was fully self-aware and did not give a damn. His attitude was that he was going to pay you what he was going to pay you, and you were going to do as you were told, including Saturday morning meetings followed by Saturday afternoon work and evening seminars on investments even though he wasn’t paying you enough to have any money left over to invest. As he pointed out regularly, if you thought you weren’t getting enough, you could go out and hustle your own cases, just understand he would get 2/3 of whatever you brought in. His attitude was also that he knew best, therefore he was going to dominate every lunch conversation and every meeting, just expecting all the other lawyers to nod along like bobbleheads.

                The man would be 82 years old now, if he is still around. There are a lot of people I have worked with over the years whose wakes and funerals I would make a point of attending to pay my respects. There are a lot of people whose passing I would be at least sorry to hear of. He doesn’t fall into either category.

            • The guy who owned one of the firms I toiled away for, whenever he wanted the “partners” to do something that would primarily benefit him, he’d say doing so was “for the good of the order.” Hah! Sure.

              • Did everyone’s performance reviews suddenly tank the year he was building his shore house? Another firm’s top guy did that, people who had been getting 4s and 5s on their reviews suddenly all got 1s and 2s.

                • That’s right up there with the situation two people I know had handed to them: After ten years of great annual reviews, both suddenly got less than satisfactory reviews within six months of their vesting into their retirement! A little transparent, don’t you think? One threatened to sue, and though didn’t keep the job, remained vested in the retirement plan. Both were with big companies run by Boards and not some single megalomaniac: so clearly this level of dishonesty and usury is not limited to the latter.

                  • Yes, I’d say it’s a bit obvious, and so would the courts. That’s why the one guy kept his retirement plan, I’d say. I agree, big companies just take longer and involve boardroom negotiation and cajoling, whereas firms that are run essentially by one top guy are susceptible to quick change by decree at all levels. Never take a job with a small firm unless you know for a fact that all the partners are decent, fair people. It only takes one would-be tyrant or one bully to poison the culture. I’d also advise against taking a job with a firm where there is a HUGE pay and lifestyle gap between the top people and everyone else. It just leads to the top people forgetting that everyone else is human too and that employees are employees, not serfs.

                    Once again, I get it that an employer’s money is theirs to do with as they see fit. Still, if the partners are all driving brand-new luxury cars and the associates can barely keep cars that are 6 years old gassed up and running, and the partners are all taking 3-4 weeks vacation overseas while the associates are lucky if they are granted a week off where they can afford to go down the shore and stay with relatives, etc., what do you think that’s going to do to morale?

                    Yes, yes, I’ve heard the partners say that bringing in the business can help you move up, but most of the time they are full of crap. They don’t mind letting you take a piece of whatever you bring in, but if they are splitting the money 4 ways they are never splitting it 5. The name of the game is cheap labor. Some even openly admit it, like one guy who tells new hires this is an entry level job and its never going to be more than one, so expect the day to come when you get bored and move on, or I move you on. Another lawyer boasted that he LOVES hiring single moms because he knows they will do as they are told lest their kid go hungry. Still another’s favorite line to use when hit up for a raise is “ya know, over a thousand new lawyers pass the bar here twice a year, every year, and I’m sure they’d love to work here…”

            • What your boss did was beyond unethical it’s corrupted; I would have said NO. The boss was abusing his position and there is “probably” something illegal about that kind of abuse of power.

          • Other Bill asked, “What does “pay it forward” even mean in plain English?”

            That’s a fair question tucked nicely inside of an otherwise garbage filled paragraph.

            The answer is simply to give in such a way as to inspire others to do the same. Go watch the movie called “Pay It Forward”, it’ll give you a reasonable idea of what it means. It’s not a new idea.

            • Gee, thanks Z.

              What’s wrong with “charity is a virtue” or ” be kind to others?” I’m not sure there are any movies with those titles.

              • Other Bill said, “What’s wrong with “charity is a virtue” or ” be kind to others?” “

                Nothing is wrong with them; did I somehow imply otherwise?

                Although now that you’ve mentioned it; I personally think there’s a really, really subtle difference that’s overlooked between the phrases you used and pay it forward. The concept of pay it forward is literally to inspire the person receiving to look outward and pass “it” on and inspire the next in line, the two phrases you presented cause the person to look inward to either self-justify their virtuous action or self-condemn their lack of action – self-justifying and self-condemning is old school kind of stuff. I actually like the inspiration concept behind pay it forward better, it’s kind of an outward looking Golden Rule without the religious self justifying/condemnation overtones.

                Don’t expect a return on investment, focus outward and do things for others to inspire, or just do things for others because you think it’s the right thing to do, period.

                • I never take a tax deduction on charitable contributions. Virtually all my charity is local groups some that I have been active with – Grange, scouts, 4H, sports groups, etc. Stupid not taking a deduction? Probably.

                  With my adult children it is better to give with a warm hand than a cold one.

          • Well, giving to your kids and grandkids is a kind of “Paying it forward.”
            It’s the right thing to do and best is to never expect anything in return.

  1. The dilemma of tipping protocols. In this instances the server is out of the loop since the problems that happened were not her responsibility. Management handled it in an appropriate manner and the comp was exactly the correct option.

    A gratuity is an offering and there is no reason to give one. In some instances it is “built in” and in most a voluntarily subsidizing of an employee not on your payroll, but that is our current social conventions.

    So what to do?

    The blame in my view is 100% on the shoulders of Jack. WTF are you thinking? Traveling without a packet of ones? I always carry ones when traveling for the very reason you were in a bind. Myself? I would have handed her the double fin since the breakfast was on the house. Ten bucks would not kill me. Kudo’s to Jack.

    As far as tapping into the expense account I always left the gratuity out. Never posted it despite the fact that accounting would say it was an acceptable request. That, of course, was in another century when I worked in the real world and not education.

    • I tend to agree with Rick M. The Bringer of Breakfast was not at fault in this situation and while tipping a ten spot on a comped or free meal may seem excessive, it seems right to treat the Bringer of Breakfast with respect and consideration, especially when pancakes (or waffles) are on the line.

      In my never-to-be-humble view, a Bringer of Breakfast is an exalted, cherished position in society. Many centuries have gone into perfecting the fine art of breakfast transportation. Beethoven? Brahms? Led Zepplin? Rank amateurs. Nay, we must give credit where credit is due and the tip was appropriate.

      I would leave the tip off the expense report because, either way, it wasn’t the obligation of the contractor to tip the Bringer of Breakfast.

  2. Put it in your line for miscellaneous expenses. And next time, use the pad that usually comes with the complimentary pen to get the pen going before you have to fill anything out.

  3. I agree with Zoltar for a change… although karma is just a myth if believing in it makes some folks better people, who am I to argue if they believe in it. We can discuss whether people are more altruistic, or less mean, because of their belief in karma (or pleasing or offending their god). I’d like to punch you in the face but I’m a good Christian so I won’t do it (but will go home and kick the dog instead)…..

  4. Your ethical angels won out on this one, Jack. Good for you! You made an undoubtedly underpaid hotel employee very happy. You should feel good about that and don’t over-think this one. But listing it as a miscellaneous expense as suggested by Steve-O-in-NJ would probably be ok.

  5. I always tip more if something is complimentary — or at least 20% of what the original value of the meal is.

    I do seek reimbursement for anything that has a receipt — a restaurant bill, cab ride, etc. If it is a tip that usually isn’t documented — valet, porter, hostess, etc., I do not.

    Since you presumably didn’t receive a receipt for your complimentary breakfast, I probably would let it go.

    Also, you should always have small dollar bills on you while travelling!

  6. I always tip too much, with the full knowledge that food servers of all kinds are probably the lowest paid among most workers. I also know that said workers are often paid so poorly exactly because their employers know that they will get tips… Nevertheless, in the spirit of generosity, I do tip. And well.

    Forced charity is something else again. Years ago, at the university where I worked, our department head just happened to be the chairman of the University employee United Way campaign. The implied threat/ransom? “Poor ‘Fred’ needs to have 100% participation from his own department, since he’s asking other departments to do the same.” And we all dutifully made pledges out of our meager university paychecks.

    Beyond generosity to waiters and other service people, I pick my own charities, and am generous unless and until I feel I’m being strong-armed. Then it’s different. Guess I’m not a very malleable donor… too bad for them, but it’s my own conscience I have to live with.

  7. So… like yourself, I wouldn’t know what to do about reimbursement.

    Question — if the breakfast was NOT complimentary, would your client pay for that? If so, I think putting the tip on your reimbursement list is certainly fair (and probably less than breakfast!). If the agreement was for you to pay for your own meals, then certainly do not include the tip on the list of expenses.

    I think this is a question of expectations as much as ethics. If the client expects to pay reasonable expenses, including meals, then put it on. If that’s not the agreement, then take it off.

  8. Which client pays for your breakfasts on regular days when you are at home?

    I’ll jump forward to the answer: All of them.

    All of your breakfasts not taken on the road are paid for via your paycheck, which you ultimately cull out of the overhead mark-up on your services. So every other breakfast though directly paid via your “paycheck” you cut yourself every month, it really comes through overhead, overhead which is borne EQUALLY by every client.

    Every year you do a budget and can generally assume how much travel you do and ought therefore be able to assume how much food is consumed during travel (food that we know will generally work out to be more expensive than food taken at home – though arguments could be made that it really isn’t much difference, when you put time into the picture). Those predicted food costs COULD be distributed throughout your overhead and not piled on a single particular client.

    If you expected to pay a tip, you probably also could’ve anticipated needing a more versatile range of bills than a single 1 with the next largest denomination being a 10.

    But in the arrangement you made, food expenses go directly to the client paying for the travel. The error of not bringing a more diverse range of “tipping” cash falls on you. No one is unfairly benefiting and no one is unfairly cheated.

    You could have always called the front desk and asked if they intended on comping the tip.

    • I couldn’t call down about a lousy ten bucks…that’s my father’s realm: hell, son, its only money: don’t debase yourself by giving it the satisfaction of thinking it matters so much. This in one of many reasons neither of us got rich. Thanks, Dad!

      That and the fact that in ethics you charge what the market will bear, and often overhead is a pipe dream…

      • I agree. But the post certainly seems to make it out like it’s a much larger problem than the advice your father puts forth.

        Wholehearted belief in “its only money: don’t debase yourself by giving it the satisfaction of thinking it matters so much” makes the statement “and cost me an extra ten bucks.” connotatively less factual.

        The whole problem seems much less a problem than it actually is.

        Value exchange is what commerce and community is all about.

        Money is merely the best method we humans have managed to come up with for effecting those necessary exchanges of value that make community work. But it isn’t perfect.


        “That and the fact that in ethics you charge what the market will bear, and often overhead is a pipe dream…”

        I think in ALL industries, you charge what the market will bear. Well, to put it a better way: the market will tell you how much it values the service or product you offer.

        I don’t understand the phrase “overhead is a pipe dream”, however.

        I find overhead to be the reality of EVERY business.

        • It means it’s hard to cover overhead in a field that everyone regards as professional spinach. And in fields like non-profits and government ethics, the fee is what they can afford and what budgets will bear. Law firms and big companies pay relatively well, and in the good years, I have enough of them that we don’t lose money…but cash flow is constant problem.

  9. Just curious, Jack, and it is a personal inquiry so I can fully understand just telling me to blow off. Do you require a contract for any of your engagements that stipulate the criteria?

    When I was in the real world – personnel (AKA – HR) actually had a small pamphlet on company policy regarding travel and expenses. We even had our own travel coordinator. I use to love to screw around with the Sabre portal.

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