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Sunday, August 25, 2013

All-You-Can-Eat Buffets: An Unethical Sandwich?

Restaurant chains that advertise their “all you can eat” buffets, such as Golden Corral and Old Country Buffet, present us with an interesting case in human resource management and business ethics. The structure of the system is particularly interesting from an ethical perspective.
 
                         Locations of Golden Corral restaurants in the U.S. Hardly an insignificant chain. Image Source: Find.mapmuse.com
 
In terms of human resource management, the companies pay their respective wait staffs as other restaurants do—a base pay below minimum wage—with tips making up the difference and perhaps more. However, unlike at non-buffet restaurants, the wait staff do not set the tables, take food orders, and bring the food to the tables; rather, the customers get their own silverware, plates, and food, carrying all of them back to their respective tables. Nevertheless, the “server” (a.k.a. waiter/waitress) makes sure that the customers are aware that the server is a server: “Hi, I’m Mike! I’ll be your server. Let me know if I can get you anything.” The employee is not making this statement so the customer will be aware that he or she can have the “server” do more; rather, the last sentence is a subterfuge (i.e., camouflage) intended to ensure the customer’s full attention. The role claim is of course false. In terms of the “server’s” tasks, he or she buses the tables—carrying away the plates and drinks (though in some cases getting coffee and non-alcohol drinks except for water).
Both in the companies’ respective managements telling the employees that they are servers and in the employees themselves representing themselves as such when they are actually busing tables, a lie is being passed on. Put another way, lying to the employees and the customers in turn is unethical. Kant, for instance, has as one version of his criterion for ethics that people should be treated not merely as means, but also as ends in themselves. Lying to people does not treat them as ends in themselves, but, rather, solely as a means to one’s own profit. The company managers want the employees busing tables to expect the sort of tips that servers get so the company can pay the low base pay that restaurants pay their servers. Reliant on such tips, the employees busing tables have a fiscal incentive to manipulate their customers into thinking of the bussers as servers so they can get the full tips that servers get, rather than the 1% of those tips that bussers get from the servers.
Meanwhile, the customer who realizes that the self-declared “server” is actually only busing the table feels lied to; furthermore, such a customer either does not tip or leaves a lower tip, which would be quite generous if left for a buser in a non-“help yourself”-buffet restaurant. This is not to say that every, or even most customers who forego tipping at Golden Corral or Old Country Buffet do so out of insight; a fair number undoubtedly take unfair advantage of the fact that paying the cashier prior to eating makes it easier to slip out without tipping. This too is unethical.
Let’s do the math. A lunch at Golden Corral or Old Country Buffet costs about $10 (a few dollars more with a drink other than water). Assuming adequate service, a tip that would be given to a server at a non-buffet restaurant should be 15% or 20% of the pre-tax $10, hence $1.50 or $2.00. The server would in turn give the person busing his or her tables 1 percent of the $10, which is 10 cents.[1] Therefore, leaving even fifty cents to a busser at Golden Corral or Old Country Buffet would actually be generous, even though he or she would be expecting $1.50 or $2.00 based on the lie. The customer who sees through the façade tips the busser ten cents, or maybe a bit more if the customer over-indulged and used several plates (although the use of new plates is required, for public health reasons). Given the insignificance of such an amount, the customer might not tip at all.
Either way, the customer is rewarded for his or her insight by being made to feel guilty simply because of the lie and its ongoing effect on the customers who tip too much, given the service. Should I give her more? What if she chases after me, calling me a cheapskate? Given the manipulation, even the guilt, which both the management and the server are counting on, going after customers who see through the lie would add injury to insult.
In short, the human resource system is intentionally designed so as to corral customers into paying tips in line with the lie. Customers who see through it are caught between paying what is actually too much and feeling guilt for not doing so, and this arrangement is no accident. Meanwhile, the “servers” are also put in an impossible position. Because of the low base-wage, they rely on tips that in turn depend on a lie being believed by customers who would have to pay more and thus have a financial incentive to see through the lie and pay a tip for the actual busing. That both of these arrangements, which are co-dependent, are intentional means that both the designers and the implementers are engaging in unethical business conduct. The bussers/”servers” are both unethical themselves and victims of the unethical conduct of their “superiors.” Moreover, the whole system can be labeled as unethical, as it not fair to either the employees or the customers.
Why does the arrangement continue?  It depends on moral guilt and ignorance—that is, weakness, Nietzsche would say. Most of the customers, mislabeled as “guests,” at least at Golden Corral, are already significantly over-weight. For them, just going to such a restaurant could be considered self-destructive. The surplus fat and excessive eating at the all-you-can-eat buffets both suggest that such customers are too driven to getting more and more (i.e., they are greedy). Having a hypertrophic instinct to satisfy a need already satisfied, they fail in their self-centeredness even to take in the system “out there,” not to mention detect that it is based on a lie. Such customers enable or “feed” the system, rather than cause it to collapse or starve.
Put another way, the greedy managers and bussers rely on greedy customers paradoxically to pay tips that are in actuality too high. Greed begets greed, or at the very least it depends on itself to pay more. Not just any greed can be relied on—not that of the customers who skip out on tipping because doing so is relatively easy. Only the greed that greed can control is beneficial to greed. To break the cycle requires the participation of people who are not greedy because they are immune to the oil that keeps the machine going—namely, greed. Such people either tip appropriately, disregarding the lie, or do not tip at all, on account of being lied to. Those who don’t tip because they can get away with it do not bring the system down, as they are motivated by greed.
That the con-job endures in at least two major restaurant chains in the U.S. says something about the amount of greed in corporate America, and perhaps, moreover, in modern society and even human nature itself. The greed enabled by the “pay first” policy only means that the extent of greed is even more. To be sure, greed has been a staple in human nature much longer than large corporations have been in existence. Even so, the institutionalization of the economizing instinct in large organizations may enable it to dominate other instincts via hypertrophic growth in the human psyche, and thus increase the amount of greed in society.

On whether religion can be counted on to restrain the greed, see the related essay, "Godliness and Greed."


1. See Ask.com. The usual practice by servers it to give one percent of the total sale, including tax. In my example, that would add roughly another ten cents to what the server gives the busser.