Four business owners – four different holiday tipping systems. Tipping policy can become a hot-button issue during the holidays, when clients may desire to reward good business relationships with a gift.

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Cleaning people were the most commonly tipped service providers in 2011, according to a survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. Fifty-nine percent of Americans who hired a cleaning person or service gave them money or a present, and the median tip was $35. Both the number of people who tip and the amount of money given were down from the previous two years.

Tipping and what to give as a tip are both very regional and very personal. In cities, cash seems to be more the norm, with the gift often being of a higher monetary value than it is in more suburban or rural areas; in smaller towns, baked goods may be acceptable as a tip. Emily Post recommends giving housekeepers cash and/or a gift up to the amount of one week’s pay.

You would think that tipping would be a pretty straightforward thing for cleaning business owners to handle, but we received a wide range of answers when we asked experienced business owners about their holiday tipping policy. 

Why were the answers so different? Business owners differed greatly on how much control they wanted or felt they should have over the tipping process. Since hard feelings can erupt among cleaning techs teammates if they feel the tip was distributed unfairly, several owners felt the need to intervene in order to help morale or keep the peace.  A conflict can arise if a cleaning tech is given a tip and does not offer to share it with a teammate who does not usually clean the house. Or a fill-in cleaning tech may take the tip envelope left for the regular cleaner and never mention that a tip was given, especially if the gift was cash. Then there is the problem of how to divide a gift of goodies or how to deal with something like a candle or a scarf which is only meant for the team captain, leaving the teammate left out. In cases where regular customers only give a thank you card or leave nothing at all, the business owner or manager has to help the cleaning tech understand that tipping or gift giving is not an obligation but an opportunity for the client to say “thank you.” 

With this in mind, CBT interviewed several cleaning business owners and asked about their policies on holiday tipping. 

Liz Trotter
American Maid

Liz Trotter of American Maid in Olympia, WA, takes a proactive approach to holiday tipping, and tipping in general. Liz asks that all tips throughout the year be brought to the office and pooled. “We have large teams, which foster accountability, so we usually don’t have a problem with them bringing in the tips,” Liz reports. The tips are collected all year and are distributed before Thanksgiving so the team members can take advantage of sales before Christmas. The amount of money each team member receives is based on tenure, responsibility, and number of hours worked. Tips collected between Thanksgiving and December 31st are distributed in the beginning of January. Liz says she’s always asked by other business owners how she compensates employees who only work for a limited time or who leave before the holidays. “Team members who leave beforehand are compensated with their last check. Their bonus is based on number of total hours worked and the money taken out of tips collected up to the point they left.” It’s a complicated system, Liz admits, but her team members really like the big checks they receive around the holidays, some of which can be more than a week’s wages.

Vicki Coleman
On the opposite coast, Vicki Coleman of Huff-N-Puff Cleaning Services in Kensington, Maryland, developed a “Holiday Fund” concept. Vicki has fielded many questions over the years from customers asking the best way to show their appreciation to their cleaners during the this season. She sends a letter to each customer before Thanksgiving describing the system they developed at Huff-N-Puff to handle holiday tipping. The fund allows employees who have been employed there for a year or more to at least receive a weeks’ worth of pay as a bonus. Emphasizing that the letter is not a solicitation or an encouragement to tip or give a gift, the letter explains that the company has established a Holiday Fund for the employees, and customers who wish to donate are welcome to do so. Funds collected are distributed to both field and office staff based on tenure, level of responsibility within the company, and attendance, among other things. During the rest of the year, Vicki says they have no specific policy regarding field staff receiving tips or gifts.

In the years since the Holiday Fund was implemented, Vicki reports they have received a very positive response from customers to this way of doing things, and that some customers are very generous. The customers like it because they often have different teams during the course of the year and they don’t have to worry about compensating everyone separately. The employees seem to enjoy this system better also, rather than receiving many small gifts from many different customers. “It is somewhat time-consuming,” Vicki says of the Holiday Fund, “but because everyone seems to like it, I feel it is worth the effort.”

Cloud Conrad
Maid Brigade
At the other end of the spectrum is the “hands off” philosophy. According to Cloud Conrad, Vice President of Brand Strategies for Maid Brigade, Inc. in Atlanta, Georgia, the company in general discourages tipping. “Sometimes tipping is not a show of thanks for work that’s already done but rather an expectation for something to be done in the future, namely work that isn’t part of the regular cleaning routine and therefore not included in the cost,” says Cloud. This puts both the team and the office staff in a difficult position. In addition, acknowledgement of tipping means it becomes taxable earnings, which requires its own documentation process. Finally, it creates a question on those occasions when a substitute team is cleaning – who, exactly, is the tip meant for? This is a question the office staff is hesitant to get involved in. 

Still, sometimes – and particularly this time of year – customers will leave a tip, Cloud acknowledges. If the tip is paid in cash, the team presumably splits it. If it is included in the check, the office manager can use petty cash to reconcile with the team. Tips on credit cards are not accepted. “If a customer says they want to leave a tip,” Cloud says, “Our answer is ‘It isn’t necessary, but if you feel the need to, then please leave it in the form of cash or a check made out to one or both of the team members.’”

Matthew Ricketts
Better Life Maids

Matthew Ricketts, President, co-founder and Chief Experience Officer of Better Life Maids in Missouri, feels it’s important to take a free market approach. He disagrees with the practice of pooling tips, saying “Whatever comes to the team is theirs. Tips are extraneous to the company since the intent of the client is for the money to go to the team. When you over-complicate the system, it causes tension.” Better Life Maids depends on the integrity of their employees to share the tip. Teams of three work on a reward system and the responsibility of handling the tip is at the discretion of the team supervisor who can divide the tip evenly among the team members or treat them to lunch. Matt tells CBT that tipping in this industry should be treated like tipping in the restaurant industry, and that the pooling of tips is “irritating to the high producers, who should be rewarded for their skill and hard work.” 

Company policies on receiving tips seem to reflect the business philosophy of the company’s owner. “The holidays are a bad time of year to leave your job in our industry,” Matt points out. “Missing work at this time of year definitely affects your income.” Therefore, having a clear position, if not a policy, to share with your employees on tipping is important to everyone involved.

Janice Stewart is owner of Castle Keepers and the driving force behind the development of the Modern Cleaning approach. Janice brings her scientific and healthcare background to inform the development of effective, safe and healthy cleaning methods.