The Interpreter Ethicist: Should Interpreters Accept Tips?

Tipping is big here in the US, and pretty much everyone expects a tip in the services industry: the barista, the hairdresser, the cab driver, the guest room attendant at a hotel, the waitstaff at any restaurant, even the guy who opens the door for you at a fancy hotel. However, professionals such as lawyers, doctors and accountants are customarily not tipped. So where do interpreters fit in? Do interpreters ever get tipped? Should they? Is it ethical to accept tips? If yes, when is it and when isn't it? Let's explore this interesting topic today.

In all the years we've been working as interpreters, we've only had a few situations in which clients wanted to tip us. Here are two:

  • One time Judy was interpreting in court for a private client in a civil case (this means that the client was paying and not the government, as in Nevada the government only pays for interpreters in criminal cases). This particular client won his case and was very grateful for Judy's services. Even though Judy had been invoicing the law firm that was representing the client, he told her she did such an outstanding job that he insisted on tipping her. He pulled out his wallet, took out $20, and offered the bill to Judy. She didn't know what to do, as that was the first time it had happened. So she followed her first instinct, which was to decline, and that's probably never a bad decision. The client insisted for a bit, but Judy told him that she was already invoicing his law firm at her regular rate and that tips weren't necessary. The client finally put the $20 back in his wallet and thanked Judy once again. Now, would it have been ethical for Judy to accept the tip? Maybe; or maybe not. We consulted the codes of ethics of both California and Nevada, and as is typical with codes of ethics, there's no specific information about a situation like the one that Judy was in. Accepting a tip from a private party after the assignment is over doesn't violate the impartiality clause, as the client was already paying Judy (through his law firm) in the first place and she still remains impartial. So, the extra $20 wouldn't have affected that pillar of our code of ethics one way or another. However, could accepting the tip be a violation of another one of the elements of our code of ethics, such as professionalism? We aren't sure, but we'd love to hear your opinion.

  • The other situation occurred during a business interpreting assignment. Judy had spent five days with a lovely couple from South America during a tradeshow, and she enabled communication with the client's vendors. She learned a lot about their business during that week, and they established an easy rapport. This type of interpreting is completely different from court interpreting, where one has to remain impartial, and on the last day, the couple invited Judy to lunch. They had already paid a 50% deposit for the interpreting services, and Judy had agreed to invoice them for the rest at the end of the week. However, they pulled out an envelope with cash at the end of the meal and said they wanted to pay the balance right away and threw in an extra $100 for the great service (but of course still wanted an invoice and a receipt). Judy had never been paid in cash before, but was happy to receive the payment. She wasn't sure about the extra $100, and hesitated a bit. The client insisted she accept the money and told her that she'd helped him and his wife have a very successful business trip. Judy finally did accept the extra $100, but remained unsure. Was it ethical to do so? We think it was.

We'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic, dear colleagues. As with so many questions on ethics, there are really no clear-cut right or wrong answers. Please join the conversation by leaving a comment.


Josh Goldberg said...

Every once in a great while, a defendant in municipal court will try to tip me on their way out. Of course I always refuse, telling them that I'm not allowed to accept it, and that a handshake and "thank you" is more than enough. I also try to make a big enough show of my refusal (putting up my hands in a sort of "keep-that-away-from me" gesture) so that it is clear to everyone watching that I'm refusing the tip.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on August 5, 2014 at 11:54 AM said...

@Josh: Thanks for reading and for commenting! We agree 100% that refusing the tip is the way to go in these situations. We might just have to copy your gesture, which seems to be working well.

Anonymous said...

The only time I ever accepted a tip was at the end of an assignment when a member of the delegation for whom I was interpreting offered me some additional money at the end. As the assignment was over and impartiality was not an issue, I was happy to take it but of course, it went through the books.

That being said, had it been an adversarial assignment or if I had contractually agreed not to, I would have said no. Interestingly enough, I have seen national codes of conduct that make tipping at the end of an assignment when it can have no effect on the work okay but ban it at all other times.

I have also heard of doctors receiving thank you notes and presents and cash for successful treatments so I am not sure exactly where the lines are drawn in other professions either.

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