Is tipping culture getting out of hand? TikTok says yes

The hospitality pay crisis means many UK waiters and bartenders are relying on tips to bump up salaries. Are we getting too close to a US-style tipping culture?

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Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young

UK hospitality has reached a tipping point. Literally. Brits are taking to social media in droves to complain about sky-high service charges being added onto their bills, as pubs and restaurants attempt to bump up worker salaries by fattening up the tip jar.

One video criticising tipping culture expectation, from TikTok user Nick Rose, has amassed almost 20k views. It has prompted an influx of comments from workers who report low pay, and consumers struggling with the cost of living crisis.

Some warn the UK is getting close to an American-esque tipping practice, where staff are paid a miniscule amount with the expectation that customers will foot the payroll bill instead.

TikTokers hit back at tipping expectations

Credit: TikTok user @nandini

To tip, or not to tip? The topic has long been contentious for Brits. Heated debates often begin with the arrival of the receipt, as questions over how much to add on lead every aspect of a meal to be dissected: from wait staff table manners to food wait time.

But for some, the oft-repeated joke to “tip your waitresses” has now gone from being a personal choice to a demand. Many feel guilt-tripped at having appeared not to have given enough. Others recall the shame felt at asking for a tip to be removed.

Now, TikTokers are starting a new discourse: should we even tip at all?

“Why does it seem like tipping is becoming mandatory now in the UK?” asked Nick Rose, in his viral vid. “If you’re not careful when paying for a bill, businesses sneakily add up to a 10% tip.”

Meanwhile TikTok user, nandini, attracted over 50,000 likes when she shared a talking head last year, opining that tipping culture in the UK was “getting out of hand”.

“I went to one bar where they literally took our order and gave us our drinks and that was it,” she said. “[But] it automatically added a 12.5% service charge onto our bill”.

Hospitality firms struggling to pay staff

The reported rise in tipping expectations can be traced to the ongoing cost of living crisis. With consumers spending less, and energy bills still in chaos, many UK pubs, bars, and restaurants are facing closure due to decimated profit margins.

Answering the upsurge in overheads, establishments are increasingly slapping seemingly arbitrary tip rates onto bills. Previously, 10% was the norm. Now, patrons can expect to fork out as much as 12.5% or 15% on employee tips.

The practice has spread from expensive restaurants to coffee houses. In London, where business expenses tend to be higher, some customers describe being asked to tip 20%.

While tips are usually optional, that they are automatically applied to bills may create an awkward situation if the customer asks for the charge to be removed. This can result in staff being tipped due to social pressures, rather than in recognition of quality customer service.

Minimum wage rise spells trouble

Hiked gratuity could soon become the norm up and down the country. The National Minimum Wage will rise to £11.44 an hour this spring, adding around £1,000 to annual balance sheets per staff member.

As a result, a recent Startups survey found that hospitality firms are least confident about meeting pay expectations this year, making tips necessary to plump up wage packets.

Even big firms are struggling. The Scottish brewery, Brewdog, which owns over 100 pubs worldwide, has had to rescind its status as a Living Wage employer, after CEO James Watt admitted the cost increase was too big for even the barrel-sized business to absorb.

Fiona is a 25-year-old graduate who lives in London. She has six years’ experience working in hospitality, most recently at a popular restaurant chain based in Covent Garden. Speaking to Startups, she revealed that without tips, her hourly wage would have been almost halved.

“Every hospitality job I’ve had paid a minimum hourly rate, not even living wage, which you can’t survive on without tips,” she told Startups. “I think 12.5% is fair for me as a server.”

Would you tip 20%?

Sinead Byrne is Senior Consultant at a global recruitment company, who recently went out to a local bar in Peckham for her birthday. As a party of 16, she recalls they booked a table for bar snacks rather than a full restaurant meal.

After ordering around 18 bottles of wine, eight small plates, and a few bowls of chips, the group settled their bill at £400. It wasn’t until Byrne got home that she realised she had been charged a 20% for service, adding an extra £80 to the total bill.

“With only one food order taken, it felt like a lot to be added to the bill,” Byrne tells Startups. “I think that for the service we received, our party would have been less demanding than a table of six.”

Fiona does offer sympathy to Byrne. In her view, gratuity should only be paid if the server has done their job well. She admits that even she doesn’t tip when she feels the staff have been poor.

“I think there should be no stigma for requesting to take tips off if your service was bad or even just average,” she expands. “But people should recognise good service with any size tip because hospitality workers really do suffer.”

Are we headed for a US-style tipping culture?

Many commentators argue that the UK’s tipping system is transitioning into a billing structure similar to the US. America is famous for its higher service charges, typically 20% of an order at minimum, which can catch unsuspecting tourists off-guard.

Generally, this is because of the shockingly low wage rates that hospitality workers in the US receive. The United States federal government requires a wage of at least $2.13 per hour be paid to employees who receive at least $30 per month in tips.

That leaves customers to take care of the difference between minimum salaries and the living wage of $25.02 per hour. For Brits, there are concerns that falling revenues mean hospitality employers are becoming reliant on tips to pay employees a decent salary.

Byrne expresses similar worries. “I sincerely hope [tips] go to the waiting staff as an extra, and do not make up part of their pay, as is common practice in the US,” she adds.

Hospitality burnout worsens talent drain

Pay is not the only problem plaguing hospitality businesses. The rise in vacancies, coupled with heightened staff turnover, employees are feeling a mental pinch as well as financial.

The Burnt Chef Project surveyed 1,273 hospitality professionals in 2023. It uncovered that 84% of respondents had experienced mental health issues within their career. Given this mental health crisis, tips could be the only thing keeping workers behind the counter.

Fiona quit hospitality in October, citing low pay and poor wellbeing as factors behind the decision. “There’s no incentive to stay when I can make the same amount of money in an office job,” she comments.

“My mental health can’t cope with hospitality long-term. For the intensity of the job, both physically and emotionally I would have to be paid a lot more to stay.”

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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