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The Pastor, the Waitress and the Tip That Wasn’t

by Mike Rothschild

February 4, 2013

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Donate It was the social media scandal of the week, racing around the internet in less time than it takes to microwave a burrito. A waitress at Applebee's got stiffed on her gratuity by a large group of customers, and another waitress at said Applebee's took to the internet to vent about it. Unfortunately for the servers of America, such indecencies happen all the time, and if the story were only that, you wouldn’t be reading this right now.

But it wasn’t only that. Because the waitress (Chelsea) didn’t just go vent on Twitter about her colleague being cheated, she posted a picture of the receipt to the atheism forum on Reddit. The whole receipt, including the signature of the non-tipper. And why the atheism forum, you ask? Because the non-tipper took the time add “pastor” above their signature, cross out the amount of tip automatically added to the bill (this was one of ten separate checks in a large party) and write “0” along with the cheerful homily of:
I Give God 10% Why do you Get 18 [sic]
Soon, the thread was so popular that it was picked up by Consumerist, a blog devoted to consumer rights and fixing corporate outrages. Meanwhile, the good people of Reddit got to work, trying to decipher the signature of the non-tipper and dispense karmic justice. The waitress realized she’d made a mistake in not redacting the signature of the non-tipper (as she thought it was illegible), and tried to have the picture taken down, but Reddit users were already guessing the name and location of the pastor, and soon had it all figured out.

Once identified, the pastor, Alois Bell of St. Louis’ Truth in the Word Deliverance Ministries church, did what she felt was the Godly thing: she called Applebee's to complain and demanded that not only the waitress but the management of the whole restaurant be fired. Applebee's did sack Chelsea for violating a vaguely written corporate policy and the usual apologies were issued, from the ex-waitress for posting the full receipt, Applebee's for violating Ms. Bell’s privacy and Ms. Bell for the snide note (though not for the lack of tip, which she claims she left in cash.)

All of this happened within two days.

Rather than turn this into a rant against bad tippers and hypocritical pastors, both of which are surely deserved, though not quite Skeptoid material, I feel like there are some larger questions that can be asked in the aftermath of the incident. Wide-ranging issues related to privacy, the role of social media and the inflexibility of corporate culture are all worthy of critical examination here. Also, bad tippers and hypocritical pastors.

Was the pastor wrong for trying to get out of paying the tip?
Undoubtedly. While a gratuity is technically optional (though deserved and needed) in most cases, she was part of a party of ten, and most restaurants have a stated policy of automatically adding a gratuity onto a bill for a group that large, usually 15-20%. Ms. Bell’s group were regulars at the Applebee's in question and surely would have known about their policy. By dining at the restaurant, her group implicitly entered into an agreement to pay their bill plus an additional 18%. Trying to get out of paying that is not only a violation of that agreement, but stealing " thumbing her nose at Exodus 20:15 in the process. While she had every right to complain after the receipt was posted online, I fail to see the Godliness in demanding an entire restaurant staff be fired for the actions of one.

Was the waitress wrong for posting the receipt on Reddit?
I believe so, but the mistake could easily have been avoided by redacting the signature. If she had, the matter would have remained anonymous and no harm done. Clearly, it wasn’t her place to put a customer’s name out into the ether, no matter how bad their behavior was. And I understand the importance of privacy, even for those who do the wrong thing. But I also believe that people get what they deserve, and I'm not unhappy that Ms. Bell was named and shamed as a hypocrite.

Was Applebee's wrong for firing the employee?
This is a tricky one. Applebee's certainly was within their rights to fire Chelsea, as she was an at-will employee. And a corporation that doesn’t defend the rights of its customers won’t stay open for very long. But should they have? When is it proper for a company to defend an employee against reprehensible behavior by a customer? Might that not earn them goodwill from far more people than would be offended by them not doing so? Does anyone even do that anymore? In my opinion, Applebee's certainly COULD have fired Chelsea, but was wrong to do so. They knuckled under to the demands of a customer trying to steal from them. And they're now facing a tremendous backlash on social media because of it.

Should Ms. Bell had an expectation of privacy that her “snide comment” wouldn’t have been put on the internet?
I’m not sure about this. Yes, I’d be appalled if an employee at a restaurant I ate at posted my name online, and probably would complain loudly to anyone who did that. On the other hand, the ubiquity of social media makes it harder and harder to keep bad behavior under wraps, whether it’s a bully getting their comeuppance or a politician saying something idiotic and offensive and being called out on it. While I can understand Ms. Bell’s upset over her name and occupation being revealed for the world to see, it’s hard to feel like she didn’t deserve it in some way. And should bad behavior like this be kept hidden at all? Maybe the next person to contemplate stiffing a waitress will think twice, realizing they could end up as an internet celebrity for a few days because of it. But should fear of public ridicule be part of the dining experience, especially if a server DOES give bad service, and you don't tip well because of it? This has some pretty serious potential consequences, so it's worthy of further discussion.

Is the entire tipping system in the United States an anachronism? And why is something that’s technically optional seen as a requirement?
Tipping etiquette varies wildly by country, with some countries having a robust tipping culture, and others where it’s seen as offensive to leave extra money on a table. Regardless, the expectation in the US is that exceptional service is rewarded handsomely, and virtually any service beyond “I got your order wrong and spat in your food and punched your mother” will get 15%. Restaurant staff, who usually make below minimum wage, depend on the financial generosity of their clientele, and to not tip well (or at all) for decent service makes you look like a jerk, even if the service was less than perfect. And as I said earlier, trying to not pay an automatic gratuity is more than boorish, it's stealing.

So in this situation we have a series of wrongs, which don't add up to anything close to a right. But they do give us food for thought. When presented with a situation where there are numerous parties, all of whom claimed to be the injured one, it’s important to approach the matter both critically and skeptically. It would be easy to write this off as a big company taking the side of a rude customer over a hapless employee, but there are multiple facets to the story. Asking and answering these questions helps us navigate a social world of increasing risk and complexity, and doing it humanely.

Also, don’t stiff your waitstaff. It’s just rude.

by Mike Rothschild

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