by Padraic Gilligan | September 26, 2014

Padraic GilliganAs a European, I have long struggled with the practice of tipping in the United States. I recall an experience from a couple of years ago when I dropped $15 in $5 and $1 bills from the time I handed my rental car to a valet at the resort entrance to the moment I retrieved my luggage from the bellman who delivered it to my room. It wasn't the $15 expense that bothered me, although, on reflection, that's a lot to pay for a suite of simple acts of courtesy. Rather, it was the consistent expectation throughout the process that each and every unit of service would be immediately and handsomely rewarded. It was also the inconvenience of being sure to have change in the appropriate denomination.

Extraordinary and uncommon

Many years ago the wise founding fathers of Site offered our industry the following definition of incentive travel: "Incentive travel is a modern management tool used to achieve extraordinary goals by awarding participants a travel prize upon their attainment of their share of the uncommon goals."

The key insight here is that the reward is not earned by merely doing your job. It's earned when you do an uncommon, extraordinary job, when you've gone beyond reasonable expectations and delivered something truly exceptional. I think the principles that underlie this model have great resonance in relation to tipping in general, and provide interesting context to evaluate an initiative recently introduced by one of the world's leading hospitality brands.

Marriott's initiative

Marriott -- a brand I greatly admire and value -- has started to place branded envelopes in guest rooms to encourage guests to leave tips for the maids who service their rooms. Knowing Marriott and its strong CSR commitments, I imagine the scheme is driven by the desire to highlight and reward the maids as the unseen heroines who toil behind the scenes, putting order and harmony where previously there has been chaos and disorder. Bellboys, porters and concierges interface physically with guests and can build rapport accordingly, while maids rarely see the guests despite serving them in the intimacy of their sleeping and bathroom quarters.

But is that not their job? Is that not what they are hired and paid to do? Why should gratuities be solicited on their behalf when they are simply carrying out the tasks that are part and parcel of the role they play in the complex drama that constitutes the world of hotels? By soliciting tips on their behalf, is Marriott not implying that the maids are actually underpaid by its own corporation? Rather than asking guests to supplement the maids' earnings, would it not make more sense for Marriott itself to increase their pay if their earnings are out of kilter with other workers?

The envelope, please

The inspiration for the Marriott initiative, apparently, is Maria Shriver's A Woman's Nation, an organization "dedicated to making sure that the value of women is recognized and respected -- at home, in the workplace and as caretakers on the front lines of humanity." Shriver, it seems, approached Marriott with the idea, having spoken with female hotel workers who felt undervalued because, unlike front-of-house concierges and porters who interact directly with guests, they miss out on the tips.

Clearly, the entire cycle of motivation here is driven by solid, positive values that all decent people aspire to -- respect, fairness, equality and so on. I just don't believe this initiative gets us there. It could be seen as a convenient PR stunt for employers in the hospitality arena to actually eschew their social duty to pay fair wages: "We value our maids so much that we've signed up to a scheme to extract tips from hotel guests to supplement the low wages we pay them."

Housekeeping staff deserves to be treated equally to other service workers, so they should be paid by their employer whatever the fair wage is in the destination.

Profoundly sad

So, despite having worked as a student in the U.S., where it was all about the tips, I'm still ambivalent about tipping. As a global citizen, I know I must adapt to my environment, so I tip the required amounts across the U.S. Most of the time, however, I don't like it, and often I feel resentful. And when what should have been an act of random kindness comes with a price attached, then I just feel profoundly sad.

Pádraic Gilligan is a managing partner at SoolNua, a boutique marketing consultancy working with destinations and hotel groups on their strategies for MICE. See more here.