Sunday, June 16, 2024

Do I have to leave a tip at a takeout restaurant?

Is it wrong not to leave a tip at a takeout restaurant?

Each state in the United States sets its own minimum wage law, but in most states there is a different, lower, minimum wage set for employees who receive tips as part of their compensation. Tips may be customary at many restaurants and for many employees, and these tips might bring what they earn up to that state’s minimum wage. But it’s challenging for diners to know if they are tipping to help their server make a living wage or if they are tipping to reflect good service offered, or both.

Unless a restaurant has a posted automatic gratuity policy, which some establishments use for large parties, diners are still left to determine how much if anything to tip. Once they do decide to tip, do they calculate the tip on the pre-tax bill total? Do they leave 15% of the bill? Twenty percent? More?

Some restaurants offer a handy guide at the bottom of each bill to indicate how much varying percentage tips would amount to. This saves diners from having to whip out their phone’s calculator to do the math. It also signals to diners that while a tip might not be required, it’s an accepted norm that one would be considered.

A question arose, however, from a reader we’re calling Bill about whether it’s wrong not to leave a tip where no table service is involved. Bill wants to know if he goes to pick up a pizza or orders a cup of coffee and a doughnut or waits at a counter for a clam strip plate if he should be expected to leave a tip with the person collecting his money.

While it may strike some customers as annoying, many takeout establishments have a built-in option for tipping when they use some point-of-sale software to settle the bill. In other words, a screen pops up with various percentage options for a tip that then gets added to the bill. Again, this sends a message to customers like Bill that, yes, tipping is customary and likely expected, even at those takeout places he likes to frequent. (Those big tip jars on the counter also send a similar albeit low-tech signal.)

But that doesn’t answer Bill’s question about whether it’s wrong to not leave a tip at some places. The right thing is for Bill and others to decide how much gratuity should be left. And while they can think whatever they want about the customer, the right thing for whomever is collecting payment is not to treat the customer any worse if he or she or they decides to forgo tipping. On occasion, lousy tippers get outed on social media. While the venting may feel good, I’m not convinced such shaming results in converting lousy tippers to good ones.

For me, I choose to tip well for good service (even at takeout) not just because it’s the norm in the United States, but because it’s clear, if we’re paying attention, how hard most restaurant workers work and because it helps them make a living wage.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy, emeritus, at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to jeffreyseglin@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin

(c) 2024 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Sunday, June 09, 2024

Is it OK to lie to cover a mistake?

Is it OK to lie to cover a mistake?

A reader we’re calling Patience volunteered for a weekly blood pressure study after experiencing prolonged periods of high blood pressure. Patience met with her physician to explore ways to lower her blood pressure, but he also asked her if she would be willing to participate in a study where she would use a home blood pressure machine to take weekly readings that she would text to a number at the medical center. The idea, as Patience explained it, was to see if her blood pressure was consistently high or if it started to go down after employing some of the methods she and her doctor discussed.

Patience wrote that she gladly signed on. She purchased a blood pressure machine at her local pharmacy and every Friday before 11 a.m., she sends in her blood pressure reading. On occasions when she forgets to send in the reading, she gets a text reminding her. On one occasion when her blood pressure was particularly high, a nurse involved with the study called her to ensure that she was OK and to encourage her to schedule an appointment with her physician.

When Patience travels she typically remembers to take her blood pressure machine with her so she can continue to send in her numbers. But recently, when Patience was away from home for two weeks, she forgot to bring the machine.

“I can only submit my numbers by text,” Patience wrote, so she couldn’t text a note to the study telling those running it that she forgot to bring her machine with her. Patience is concerned that if she doesn’t report her numbers for two weeks in a row and doesn’t respond to the text reminders that she might be dropped from the study.

“Should I just send in last week’s numbers instead of sending in nothing?” Patience asked.

Of course she shouldn’t lie about her blood pressure numbers. My initial reaction to the question was that this was one of those no-brainer questions to which any reasonable person would know the right answer. But I may have been too quick to dismiss Patience’s motivation for asking.

I can understand how Patience might be concerned that not submitting her numbers may risk participating in a study meant to help her. That worry might be so intense that it led her to believe that lying was a good option. It wasn’t and she shouldn’t, but that doesn’t mean her worry wasn’t real.

If Patience can’t get access to a blood pressure machine while she’s away so she can continue to submit her numbers, the right thing is to wait until she returns and can get back on schedule. Given that a nurse had contacted her when her blood pressure spiked, there’s a good bet that someone would notify her if they were worried or if she was in risk of being dropped. She could also give her physician’s office a call and see if someone there can contact the right person.

Using fake numbers defeats the purpose of the study and Patience should just wait it out to get back on schedule when she returns.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy, emeritus, at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to jeffreyseglin@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin

(c) 2024 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Sunday, June 02, 2024

Stop making service reps stick to the script

When working customer service, is it sometimes best to go off script?

Back at the turn of the century, I wrote a column about a strike that had recently been settled between a large telecommunications company and its workers. At the heart of the strike, I wrote, “were the high stress levels experienced by service representatives.”

While the company’s stated core values were listed as “integrity, respect, imagination, passion and service,” there seemed to be a disconnect between those values and some of the ways it treated its employees. One example I offered was that management requested customer service representatives stick with this scripted question: “Did I provide you with outstanding service today?”

I noted that such a question posed to an irate customer after they presumably had worked their way through a phone tree, hold music and finally dozens of minutes of speaking to a representative could set the customer off again. No matter how patient the customer service representative might have been, if a customer had called about poor service, a simple thank you might have been a better way to end the call.

Having spent my share of minutes and hours on the phone with customer service representatives to try to resolve issues, I can understand how challenging it can be for both customer and representative to wrestle solutions to thorny problems. But almost 25 years after I wrote about the high stress levels at that telecommunications company, these often contentious discussions continue to be exacerbated by poorly scripted attempts to placate a disgruntled customer. Is it right to instruct representatives to say something that is likely to do more harm than good?

The latest example I experienced involved being transferred from one customer representative to another to see if an issue could be resolved. Each time the representative ended our discussion by asking, “Can I do anything else for you today?” Given that the representative was transferring me to someone else, that made it pretty clear they were unable to do anything for me to begin with. Because of the word-for-word duplication of that question, I am confident it was the scripted way they were instructed to end a call.

When dealing with such calls, I try hard to make clear to the representative that my frustration is with their employer not with them. But forcing such questions in the guise of helpfulness when the representative knows they haven’t been able to be helpful puts them in an awful spot by reminding the customer – in these cases, me – just how much the representative didn’t do.

 While it doesn’t address the problem I or another customer might call about, having the decency to allow representatives to stray from script if they believe such wording is likely to make the situation worse seems the right thing for employers to do. The right thing for me and other customers is to stay focused on trying to get whatever issue they called about resolved and try as hard as possible not to unload on the representative who might not be capable of fixing what needs fixing. Even better, of course, would be if companies were better at empowering employees to actually try to fix something rather than to make them switch to another person in another department who then may have to switch you to another then another. And it’s never good to blame the customer for a problem before making sure the company hasn’t screwed up.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy, emeritus, at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to jeffreyseglin@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin

(c) 2024 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Sunday, May 26, 2024

To maintain friends with opposing views, listening may be key

In 1967, I met my best friend in Mrs. Steele’s fifth-grade class at School Street School in Boonton, New Jersey. My family had just moved to Boonton. Both the school and the town were new to me. I was 10 years old, and Boonton was the eighth town I had lived in. I was used to moving, but making new friends in a new town was always a challenge.

But my soon-to-be best friend and I quickly bonded over bowling, the hamburgers at the old Boonton Diner, and generally just hanging out. Ours has been a friendship that has survived through high school, during college and graduate school even though we were hundreds of miles apart, and as adults as we found our first jobs, fell in love with our eventual spouses, and built our respective families.

Before unlimited long distance on cell phones, email and text messaging, we would write occasional letters in between visits to fill one another in. After John Lennon was murdered in December 1980, I received a pre-stamped post card from my friend that had the question, “What do we do now?” typed on it. Without asking, I knew what he was referencing.

I bring this up now because of the questions I regularly get from readers about how to talk to family or friends when they find themselves on opposite sides of political or social issues. Sometimes a reader will question whether it’s wrong to stay friends with someone whose views you disagree with. My best friend and I hold opposing political views on most issues. We support none of the same candidates for national office. And we also find ourselves in disagreement over many social policy issues. Yet, even now that we live on opposite coasts, it’s not unusual for us to talk or text weekly.

Do we avoid talking politics or other thorny issues? No. But it’s never all that we talk about. We talk about our families, our work, the New York Yankees and who won the latest Super Bowl wager. When we do talk about politics, it can get heated, but we each seem pretty comfortable knowing we are not going to convert the other to our way of thinking. What’s important in the conversation, or at least seems to be, is that we listen to one another and trust each other to tell us what they believe and why. Sure, he does have a habit of sending me vintage T-shirts from political candidates he adores and I don’t, but humor can be a funny thing.

I am not holding myself or this friendship out for laudation. I suspect that there are far more people who are and remain friends with people who have differing views.

In his book, “Working,” writer Robert Caro writes that “silence is the weapon.” If we learn to shut up and listen we can sometimes appreciate why others believe what they do even if we disagree with them. Listening can be hard, but, at least in my experience, it has helped strengthen a five-decade long friendship.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy, emeritus, at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to jeffreyseglin@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin

(c) 2024 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Is misshelving items lazy or a necessity or both?

Is it possible for someone to view an act as despicable while another views it as perfectly acceptable?

A couple of years ago, I wrote about a reader who was troubled that more and more items at her grocery store were misshelved. “I don’t know if people are lazier than before about putting an item back where they found it, if they decide not to buy it, or if it’s because the store can’t find enough workers to keep the shelves properly stocked.”

I empathized with the reader and suggested that whether the customer misshelved an item out of laziness or out of a desire to find it later before anyone else might buy it, it was wrong. “If customers don’t want to take the time to put an item back where they found it because it’s the right thing to do,” I wrote, “maybe they can embrace it as a self-interested way to get a few more steps in.”

“People misshelving items in a store disturbs and even angers me,” wrote K.C. in response. “It’s part of people’s increasing laziness. People just don’t care about doing the right thing and it’s discouraging, disgusting, and disappointing.”

But another reader, R.B., strongly disagreed. “Your recent column offended me,” wrote R.B. “I occasionally misshelve grocery items, either because I find a similar item for less or it does not fit my budget.” R.B. went on to report that she is an “older, single disabled lady who stays as active and independent as possible.” But, she wrote that “walking hurts” and that she would love to be able to walk 100 yards easily to be able to reshelve an item she decides not to purchase. “I am not in a hurry or lazy,” she wrote, and took issue with my suggestion that those who misshelve items likely are.

Both K.C. and R.B. make valid points. It can be annoying for both customers and store clerks if items in a store are regularly misshelved. But R.B. could be correct in observing that reshelving items can prove a real challenge for some customers for whom mobility is an issue. Nevertheless, the incidents of misshelved items persists.

Perhaps then it falls to the managers of grocery and other stores to do the right thing by providing customers with an option to place unwanted items in one area of the store before they check out. Doing so would enable clerks to know where to find the items to reshelve them. It would also cut away any guilt that shoppers might feel about having a change of heart about a product but not the wherewithal to return it to its original place.

Granted, an unintended consequence of providing customers with the option of putting unwanted items in one area might result in more customers being indecisive and subsequently loading up the change-of-mind shelf. That, however, might be a small price to pay to try to get things back where they belong. And even though there might be more items to reshelve, it might actually take clerks less time to do so since they won’t have to hunt the entire store for randomly misshelved stuff.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy, emeritus, at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to jeffreyseglin@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin

(c) 2024 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Is aunt obligated to give nephew money intended for education?

Are you obligated to make good on a promise if the person you promised doesn’t hold up their end of the agreement?

Many years ago, a reader we’re calling Rebecca set up an educational savings account (ESA) for her nephew to support his college education. The account stipulates that it is to be used for education-related expenses.

Rebecca’s nephew has made it clear to her that he has no plans to go to college. Since he has chosen not to go to college, Rebecca asks: “Should I still give him the money?”

In a subsequent email exchange, Rebecca clarified that the ESA she set up was a Coverdell ESA, which has its own set of rules and restrictions. I am not an expert in investments, taxes or ESAs such as the Coverdell ESA Rebecca set up for her nephew. Whatever Rebecca decides to do, she should read the fine print of her account or consult a financial services professional so she can fully understand how best to do what she wants to do.

Rebecca’s nephew knows about the ESA she set up for him. She wrote that she told him she would not release any funds to him until he went to college. But she adds: “I doubt he remembers.”

My understanding is the Coverdell ESAs allow for any balances in an account be transferred to another family member younger than 30 to use for educational expenses. Rebecca wrote that she is considering transferring the money to her niece who is graduating from high school in June and scheduled to attend college in the fall.

Rebecca adds that she promised her nephew “a small bit, $1,000” even if he doesn’t use it for college. If she takes the $1,000 from the ESA and it’s not used for educational purposes, she may face a penalty and be obligated to pay taxes on it. Again, I’m not a financial planning expert, so Rebecca should check to make sure that she doesn’t do anything that gets her into an unexpected financial tangle.

If Rebecca made clear to her nephew that the funds she set aside were only to be used for his college education, she should feel no obligation to give him the money for some other purpose. It’s unclear if she put a time limit by which he must use the funds. If she didn’t, she could decide to tell him that the money will be there to cover some educational expenses when and if he decided to go to college, although she should check to see by what age the money needs to be used.

Before she makes any promises to her niece, the right thing is for Rebecca to decide what she plans to do with the funds and her nephew and to make that clear to him. While he might be disappointed, because the account was always set up as an education savings account, the use of any funds from it were always clear.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy, emeritus, at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to jeffreyseglin@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin

(c) 2024 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.