Sunday, September 25, 2016

Should You Tip Uber Drivers?


Are you supposed to tip your Uber driver?  There is no simple answer.  You can go read five different articles on this, like I did, and come away confused.  Or you can read this post, which arrives at a specific conclusion, and includes some discussion of the culturally tricky practice of tipping in general.

Our tale begins

I used Uber for the first time recently.  I was traveling on business and needed to get to the airport in a foreign city, and had been burned by the usurious cab fare three times already.  (In those cases I’d priced Uber, and noted that it was cheaper, but chickened out.)  Coached by some colleagues, I downloaded the Uber app and ordered the car without a hitch, and even found my driver, among a row of them waiting for passengers (despite the make, model, and license plate of his car not matching what the app foretold).  The only problem was, I forgot to ask my colleagues about tipping.  So I spent the ride to the airport researching this matter on my phone, and though I got pretty carsick I never did get a definitive answer.  I ultimately decided to give the guy a few bucks, and he seemed very pleasantly surprised.  (“Oh!” he said with a start.  Either he was truly taken aback, or a great actor.)

When I got home, the matter came up again as I did my expense report.  Would my company approve this tip, as a separate line item?  Or would this raise a flag, kicking off some bureaucratic process and wasting everybody’s time?  Now the question wasn’t just “what should I do?” but “what is typical?”

The confusion

During that first Uber ride, the articles I read were non-definitive.  The first Google response (i.e., big text instead of just a link) said, “While tipping your driver is not required, it is not against Uber policy for the driver to accept cash tips.”  Okay, so I won’t be in trouble if I tip, but I still don’t know if saving my money makes me a dick.  A San Jose Mercury News article suggests that the drivers, not society, are behind this tip movement:  “When it comes to tipping, some Uber drivers have started to take matters into their own hands.”  It quotes the Uber website as saying, “You don’t need cash when you ride with Uber. Once you arrive at your destination, your fare is automatically charged to your credit card on file—there’s no need to tip.” The article goes on to quote a driver who threatens to give riders one-star reviews if they don’t tip:  “Giving one star is the only recourse I have.  That ensures they’ll never get in my car again.”   This article had me leaning toward not tipping, on the basis that greedy drivers were holding us hostage.

But my next Google result, an article on the CBS news website, quoted an etiquette consultant:  “The apps are designed for us to evolve to a cashless society; however, that doesn't mean we [have to] become heartless in the process.”  That is, the issue isn’t necessarily Uber’s to decide.  Indeed, two lawsuits filed by drivers led to a settlement compelling Uber to modify its policy, so that—while they still refuse to enable tipping on their app—they now also say, “You can tip if you want to reward good service, however, and drivers can accept.”

Past news stories aside, here’s what Uber’s website says about tipping as of today.  First, when I started to type my inquiry, the website autofilled what I suspected I was asking about:

Okay, I thought, so they call drivers “couriers” for some reason.  So I clicked that and got this answer:

In  case the snapshot above isn’t totally legible, it says, “While Uber does not require eaters to offer a cash tip, you are welcome to do so.”  Eaters?  WTF!?  Is this just a little glitch, indicating that Uber didn’t exactly slave over this verbiage?  Or are they referring to their UberEATS app?  If it’s the latter, I’m more confused than ever, because they’ve answered the question of tipping a food delivery driver, but not a standard Uber driver.  Meanwhile, a passenger consulting the Uber website could be excused for interpreting the answer as, “You can tip if you eat in the car.” 

As it turns out, the website does address tipping of drivers but only if you ask the specific question, “Can I tip my driver with the app.”  To this it responds, “Uber is a cashless experience. Tipping is voluntary. Tips are not included in the fare, nor are they expected or required.”  This is better, but Uber still doesn’t tell you what you ought to do, but only what you’re allowed to do. (And technically, we’re allowed to stiff waiters and cabbies.)

By the way, searching the Uber website on “Should I tip” produces the same autofill result over and over, as though Uber were trying to dodge the question:

With this search, there is no link to any other question.  In other words, you cannot actually ask Uber if you should tip.

The article that finally settled the matter for me was in the Boston Globe, which stated, “Uber, facing a chorus of criticism from its drivers for refusing to add a tipping function to its app, is mustering a provocative argument:  Tipping is inherently unfair because of customers’ unconscious racial biases.”  Uber, the article says, cited two studies, one which concluded that “consumers of both races discriminate against black service providers by tipping them less than white service providers,” and the other finding that “statistical oddities” abound with tipping, such as “larger fares that ended in the digits 0 or 5, such as $40 or $55, earned cabbies far smaller tips, on average, than similar fares that happened to end in other digits.”  The Uber spokesman explained their position as being that accepting tips would result in “a discriminatory system in which two drivers who perform the same work could receive substantially different wages.”

Well, how convenient!  An Uber customer who is naturally, instinctively loathe to part with his money how has a big, bright, lofty ethical and philosophical excuse not to tip.  “Yeah, I could give this guy a few bucks, but I’d be part of the problem!  I’d be an enabler, spreading discrimination through my supposed largesse!  If I give this driver extra money, I’m feeding into a racist system!” and blah, blah, blah.  This entire line of reasoning left a bad taste in my mouth.

(A Bloomberg columnist equates tipping on Uber with empowering a nefarious social movement to deprive us of our God-given right to convenience:  “Although my driver was fine and I’m generally a good tipper, I resisted the instinct to comply. He got a five-star rating but nothing further — not because I’d begrudge him the extra money, but because the only way to preserve the frictionless Uber experience is for riders to defy the social pressure to tip.”  Just in case you were tempted to side with the guy who’s trying to make a living, she continues, “Everybody seems more concerned with helping drivers cheat on their taxes by collecting unreported cash than with preserving the frictionless arrival that makes Uber so pleasant.”  Convenience-addicted, faux-idealistic cheapskates of the world, unite!)

The problem I have with the “discriminatory system” argument—beyond its giving people a way to lie to themselves about being cheap—is that it fails to address the reality that all tipping is prone to discrimination, as is giving one candidate a job versus another, or marrying one person and not another, and so forth.  By this “enabler” logic, we should stop tipping everybody until all injustice in the tipping world is corrected.  But of course that’s absurd; we all participate in the reality of life’s unfairness every day of our lives.  In a perfect world, perhaps we’d tip the undocumented immigrant laborers who keep the cost of our food so low.  I don’t think the best solution is to stiff anybody or everybody in the service sector.  An unfair tip is still more than nothing.

Myself, I plan to tip Uber drivers going forward, just like cabbies.  Will I give the Uber driver extra money because he bothered to pick up a newbie like me, with so few rides feeding my Uber rating?  No, I can’t be bothered with such minutiae.  But this does raise a larger question.

How much should we be tipping?

The etiquette expert whom CBS consulted recommends that we tip Uber drivers 20% of the cost of the ride.  That strikes me as pretty generous, especially as it comes right on the heels of not tipping at all.  I don’t want to expose myself to the wrath of Internet trolls, so I won’t say how much I generally tip cabbies, but it’s a lot less than 20%, especially when I’m traveling on business and don’t want to get in trouble for being too generous with my employer’s money.

You know who I think make far too much money in tips?  Bartenders.  I always tip a buck a drink.  That works out to about 15-20% because I only drink beer.  But should bartenders be tipped like this—i.e., as much as waiters?  After all, the bartender only has to walk about ten feet back and forth to the tap, and spends like 30 seconds filling my glass.  That’s a lot easier than the waiter helping me decide what to order, and making separate trips for the drinks, appetizers, entrees, and dessert, plus extra visits to check in and fill my water.  Yeah, the total tab is higher, but it comes after like half an hour of service.  Bartenders are getting tipped every few minutes.

And if we’re going to worry about unconscious motivations for tipping more, think of how public a gesture tipping is at a bar.  You’re not just writing something on your credit card receipt; you’re dropping cash in plain sight.  I’ve noticed that when I’m drinking with friends, the tip is always a buck a beer—but when I’m drinking with associates, or new friends, or friends of friends, it’s often two bucks.  Nobody wants to look cheap.

On the flip side, I think hotel maids are badly under-tipped.  TripAdvisor suggests tipping “$2-3 per night up to $5” and Lizzie Post in Travel And Leisure magazine says, “a couple dollars a day” regardless of the price of the hotel, on the grounds that “if you’re cleaning a hotel room, you’re cleaning a hotel room.”  This is a serious departure from restaurants and bars where, if you order expensive food and booze, the 15-20% rule automatically increases the tip even though the job wasn’t any harder.  And cleaning a room is much harder than serving food or drinks, and not much of a stepping stone to anything.  Society needs to rethink how we tip hotel housekeeping staff.

Whom shouldn’t we be tipping?

My wife and I disagree on whether you tip a hotel concierge for recommending a restaurant.  She thinks that’s the point of his offer, and one of the hazards of staying at a fancy place.  I figure a good rule of thumb for tipping is this:  would I ask a friend to do this service for me, and expect that friend to happily oblige?  I wouldn’t ask a friend to drive me to the airport, or make my bed, so I tip cabbies and hotel housekeepers.  But I’d totally ask a friend for restaurant advice, so I don’t tip for this.  The concierge can silently curse me if he wants.  (Click here for what I hope isn’t too similar a declaration of tipping policy.)

The most useless service I’ve ever tipped for was at the Carnelian Room, a really high-end restaurant atop one of the tallest buildings in San Francisco.  There was a guy in the restroom handing out towels after you washed your hands.  (This was at a wedding reception, with the booze freely flowing, so I was visiting that restroom a lot.)  I strongly disliked this service.  First of all, how hard is it to grab my own towel?  Second, how reasonable is it to have to handle currency right after washing my hands, and right before going back to my meal?  Paper money is probably the filthiest thing we handle on a regular basis.  I just did a quick survey of my wallet, and the average age of a bill in there is six years.  Think of the thousands and thousands of people who have handled that money.  Is it in any way reasonable to pay a guy for compromising my hygiene?

The latest tipping conundrum I came across was at an airport restaurant.  It’s was a pretty upscale place ($22 for a burger) and every seat was equipped with a table-mounted iPad and a credit card magstripe reader.  The menu was on the iPad, as was the POS software.  It was entirely possible—and indeed the whole idea—for diners to go through their entire meal without speaking a word to anybody.  True, a human brought the food to the table, but that happens with counter service as well.  So how much should you tip an iPad app?  Unlike Uber, this app had the tipping function built right in, and it even suggested several (generous) amounts, just like Square does.  It’s easy enough to just drop a couple bucks in a jar for counter service, but would feel weird hitting the “custom” button and typing in a really meager tip.  I ended up tipping 20%, just to play it safe.  After all, if the (quasi-) waiters here are being paid below minimum wage like most waiters, they’re probably suffering financial losses based on reasonable people reasonably refusing to generously tip an iPad app.

In conclusion

Clearly, tipping is a messy social tradition.  It would be really handy if Uber drivers everywhere assured us that they’re not allowed to accept tips, and/or that it’s a societal taboo to tip them, sure to be taken as a terribly insulting gesture.  But obviously that’s not the case, and the question isn’t going to be solved by the folks at the Uber home office.  Perhaps the best thing we can do is pester Uber to include a tip button in their app, or to pay drivers a per-trip bonus linked to the star rating given by the customer.  Or just take a cab.  Or better yet, ride your bike!

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

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