In New York (and, one assumes, other cities), inhabitants of doorman buildings are expected to provide a holiday bonus to doormen, porters, switchboard operators, handymen, and any other staff that have contact with the residents. The difficulty of determining the amount of this bonus is great, for reasons Peter Bearman discusses in depth and precision in his book Doorman (especially in Chapter 6: The Bonus).

In brief: The ideal tip is slightly above the building average, or, if you prefer, slightly above the building average for apartments “like your own” (which may depend upon the number of adults, the mix of adults and children, the rent, the amount of service you require, etc.). The logic behind being slightly above average is that you signal your appreciation for service without overpaying for the benefits that will accrue to you in the following year. (The assumption being that tips explicitly acknowledge past service, while they implicitly are down-payments on the service in the year to follow.) So, what’s the building average, or, how are the tips distributed (in the statistical sense) according to apartment type?

Having conversations about the bonus both violates norms around “money talk” and will potentially inflate the size of the tip you provide. If conversations about tipping create pressure that results in a rise in the average tip, all the residents “lose” (even if the staff win). But failing to have a conversation about tips means both you and the staff could lose, if you are way above or below the average.

My building has developed an interesting solution to the problem.

I received a printed notice from one of my neighbors, who represents “the Holiday Fund.” It describes the tipping practice in NYC, reports the tip range from the prior year (“from $90 to $600”), and notes the relatively low value of the range (many of us “know that it is not unusual to spend much more than this for individual employees in other large apartment buildings”). It compels participation: “we look forward to 100% participation in this annual event.” And it promises anonymity. You complete a form (more on that in a moment), write out a check, and give it to this representative of the Holiday Fund who distributes the total cash tips to each employee. You are asked to indicate on a form both the total amount of your gift, and the percentage (or amount) of it that will go to each employee. The note suggests the factors you might consider in allocating your gift across employees: “the level of responsibility, the quality of service and length of service in the building” and the list of employees (which does not include the building manager, interestingly) includes their first and last names, their job (porter, switchboard, handyman), and their years of service (and the list is ordered by years of service).

Now, the note promises confidentiality although your apartment number appears on the back of the allocation form, and you’re asked to write it on your check (“no cash, please!”) where it probably already appeared in the address line. All this identification does make one wonder about the promise of confidentiality….

The process significantly reduces the problem of estimating the average tip. I know the building’s largest apartment has four bedrooms, and I haven’t seen any family larger than 5 people. I know there are one bedroom apartments with single residents, and several apartments with elderly residents on fixed incomes. That makes my one person, two-bedroom apartment on the lower end of resource-intensity (from the doorman’s perspective) and in the middle in terms of size/rent. So, working off of a preliminary tip of $350 or $400, I then halved it (since I moved in over the summer), and distributed the amount fairly equitably among the five employees listed, with slightly less for the handyman (whom I pay in cash when he does work for me), and for one of the day porters (who consistently gives me the wrong mail, forgets my packages, fails to call up visitors…just basically isn’t particularly good at the service part of his job).

However much help this “holiday fund” provided me in sorting out my tip amount, it significantly reduces the benefit of tipping as a down-payment on future service. Since the doormen have no way of knowing who contributed how much to their holiday tips, none of us can get more customized, generous, or elaborate service on the basis of our holiday tipping.

Were it not unethical, the most logical solution under this system would be not to tip at all. The doormen would never know that you didn’t tip, nor would your neighbors (since the Holiday Gift Fund representative promised confidentiality). That means that I can get the same service as my neighbor for $0, as long as my other neighbors contribute.


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