One for yourself

Anthony Gladman asks how often do you tip in the pub?


Are we a stingy lot here in Britain? Ask yourself, for a moment, how often you tip in the pub. I’d imagine it’s not that often. I’ll admit it rarely crossed my mind before COVID, back when drinking in pubs was a more everyday pleasure. It’s not the done thing here, unlike in the USA where tipping is par for the course.

At most we might mumble “and one for yourself” after rattling off our order for one last round as closing time looms. But as a rule…? It could even seem a bit crass, like waving a fifty at a crowded bar to get served quicker. Who do you think you are, flashing your cash around?

We tend to comfort ourselves that our lack of tipping culture is balanced out by paying people a proper wage. Sadly for bar work that just isn’t true. Most people pouring your pint will be making minimum wage or close to it. From April 2021 the National Living Wage for people aged 23 and over in the UK was £8.91, which equates to an annual full-time salary of around £17,400 before tax. Data from suggests most bar staff make around £18,200 per year.

What happens to the money anyway?

Tipping can get murky when you look at it in more detail. What actually happens to your money is not set in stone.

Buying drinks for staff is the most straightforward option. A few places won’t allow it, and some will dictate what the drink will be, but by and large it’s as you’d expect: you tip a person, that person gets the tip.

Tipping with cash is also fairly simple. Often these staff pool their tips and distribute them among one another. Sometimes kitchen staff are not included. But again your tips mostly go where you’d expect. However cash tips have been dwindling away for years as more of us choose to pay for everything by tapping a card, phone, or fancy-pants digital watch.

Card and contactless payments are where the murk sets in. Tips collected in this manner are supposed to be pooled and distributed by a system called a tronc, overseen by a troncmaster (great title). This person is supposed to be independent from the venue’s management to ensure no funny business goes on.

Sadly troncs can be abused. Some hospitality companies have been found dipping into tronc funds to top up the wages of lower paid staff to meet the minimum wage. Some use staff tips to pay for managers' bonuses. Some take a cut just because there was money there to be taken.

All nice and legal

You may be wondering at this point what the law has to say about all this. The answer is next to nothing. There is a code of best practice on tips that says how employers should handle them, but this is voluntary. There is nothing to stop companies dipping into staff tips, and some continue to do so with impunity. The law does at least make one thing clear: tips are subject to tax and do not count towards the National Minimum Wage.

The trade union Unite counts many hospitality workers among its members. It has been campaigning for fair tips legislation since 2009. In 2016 Sajid Javid promised the government would act. In that year, a public consultation found over two-thirds of people believed tips belong to staff and employers should not be involved. But at the same time, two-thirds of employers in the hospitality sector made deductions from staff tips, in some cases taking as much as 10%.

Contactless payments, apps and QR codes are changing tipping culture

Since then the government has introduced a number of bills in parliament that would oblige employers to pass 100% of tips to staff. None of these has made it into law. There was no such bill in the latest Queen’s Speech (the government’s plan of what it wants to do during the upcoming parliamentary session). Instead an individual MP put forward a Private Member’s Bill in June. Still, I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for this to change anything. In 2010 research by The Guardian found these PMBs had around a one-in-ten chance of becoming law. That figure may be rather old, but ask yourself: how much has parliament really changed since then?

Rise of digital tipping

If the law isn’t going to clear up this mess, could there be another answer? COVID has changed a lot about the pub, including the way we get the drinks in. Could it end up changing our tipping habits as well?

Well, for a start COVID has made some of us more generous. In May, workplace management platform Planday surveyed 2,000 people about their tipping habits. The survey found over half (57%) said they would pay more to show their appreciation for bar staff.

The survey also found that contactless payments, apps and QR codes were changing tipping culture. More than a quarter (28%) said they believe tipping is now far easier than before the pandemic. More than a third said they preferred digital tipping. People liked that it is faster and less awkward, requires less interaction with staff — and even because it allows them to tip anonymously.

One example of a digital tipping system is TipJar. This works via QR code so customers don’t need to install anything on their phones. It was launched before COVID but really took off last summer when it was rolled out across all BrewDog bars.

TipJar is now in around 1,650 venues across the UK, USA, Ireland and France, around half of which are bars and pubs. Early trials suggest that using TipJar almost doubled tips where is was installed, even in sites that continued to accept card tips. In many others, TipJar has been the first opportunity for staff to collect tips without cash.

Not all BrewDog staff are happy with this arrangement. I’ve heard grumbles that using TipJar means management are effectively taking a cut from their tips. (TipJar is owned by James Brown, Retail Director at BrewDog.) TipJar however is adamant that staff keep 100% of their tips. The confusion could stem from the 4% card fee applied to each transaction. TipJar prompts customers to cover this and says that over 98.2% choose to do so.

TipJar CEO Ben Thomas says it acts as a cash equivalent system. “The money is collected directly by the staff, and is wholly owned by them, just like cash,” he explains. “When tips are collected they go into the staff member’s TipJar account, and from there can be paid out into their bank account. If the staff choose to share their tips, they go into a Team TipJar and are then shared automatically with whoever was working when the tips were received.”

Time to look again

As I write this, the so-called “freedom day” is almost upon us when all COVID restrictions will be lifted. It’s anyone’s guess what will happen in pubs after that. One thing we do know is the pandemic won’t magically go away along with the safety measures designed to combat its spread. Quite the opposite, in fact.

So table service and some measure of social distancing look set to continue for a while, even if they’re no longer required by law. This will continue to push drinkers towards cashless payments and ordering via QR codes. It also seems likely that QR codes will win out over dedicated apps. After all, who wants to install stuff on their phone just to go to the pub?

There were signs that customers were feeling more generous when pubs first reopened in the summer of 2020. The plight of bar staff who’d suffered during lockdown was fresh in people’s minds. And many had a bit more money to spread around, after months sat at home not buying train tickets or lunch every day. But in some pubs tips were declining again by July this year; I spoke to a few bar staff about this and was often told “our tips are terrible”.

Bar staff have had it tough during the pandemic. With table service they’re often working harder now than they had to before. Many of them are young, yet to be fully vaccinated against COVID, and at the same time more likely to be exposed to the virus owing to the nature of their jobs. Their pay isn’t great, and with pubs brought to the brink by lockdown and still operating under capacity, that isn’t likely to improve any time soon.

Now more than ever feels like a good time to look again at our tipping culture, and to start being a bit more generous where we can. This can only be helped by services that let us do this quickly and easily, and in a transparent manner. But if you’re still not confident about where your cash will actually go, the best thing is to ask the staff what they’d prefer. You probably still can’t go wrong with the offer of a drink.

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