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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I never know if I’m supposed to tip the various people who come to work at my house. Are there any basic rules of thumb I can follow?

A: We turned to Boston, Mass., etiquette consultant Jodi R.R. Smith to help with your question. She gave us a quick history lesson. Or perhaps it's mythology. The story goes that "tips" is an acronym for "to insure prompt service." That’s prompt service next time, since you tip after the fact, so it’s especially important to tip people who will be coming back again.

Tipping is never required, Smith says, but when it comes to people who are caring for your house and belongings, there are times when it’s highly advisable—and other times when workers could take offense at the offer. Here are Smith’s guidelines:

  • Don’t tip skilled craftsmen or technical specialists, such as plumbers, electricians, painters, alarm service technicians, handymen, piano tuners, or appliance repair people. “That’s like trying to tip a doctor or a teacher,” Smith says. “They are well-paid professionals, and a tip could offend them.” If you want to reward a professional who regularly provides exemplary service, give a holiday gift, such as a bottle of wine or a tin of gourmet cookies.
  • Do tip lawn-mowing crews, snowplow drivers, oil-truck drivers, and sprinkler servicers—but only if you’re dealing with employees, not the business owner, and only if you see the same guys come around every time. Don’t tip at the time of service, however. Tip once a year as close to the holidays as you can. “During the course of the year, offer a cold drink, a cup of coffee, a bathroom,” Smith says.
  • Mail carriers and UPS/Fedex drivers are not supposed to take cash, according to agency and company policies. But that doesn’t mean they won’t, and they are allowed to take small gifts.
  • When tipping more than one worker, try to have small bills so you can split the tip evenly among them. If you get caught with a large bill, hand it to one of them while everyone is present or announce that you’re giving a tip, and what amount, when everyone is within earshot.
  • How much to tip depends largely on where you live. “It’s all demographics,” Smith says. “If you live in a simple five-story walkup, giving the doorman $50 around the holidays might be appropriate,” says Smith. “In a high-rise with multi-million-dollar apartments, the norm might be $5,000.” And there’s a full spectrum in between. In general, Smith recommends giving $5 to $10 to each worker for a quick job, and $20 to $25 for bigger projects.
  • Food delivery people, however, are a special case. “I always over-tip them,” says Smith. “Give them $5 per pizza they deliver, and they’ll start coming to you first, even if you’re supposed to be last on their route.”
  • Movers are also a special case. If they load the truck one day and then deliver everything on a different day, make sure to tip them at the end of both days. “The guys who load the truck may be different guys who unload it, and they are handling all of your earthly possessions, so you want to keep them happy.”