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Should employees keep items rung up in error?

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Question:

I was charged for ringing in the wrong entree that was given back to the kitchen and then resold for profit. My question is, can a restaurant do that? I didn’t even get to eat the food that I had to pay for.

– Old Town Inn, Temple Hills, Maryland

Answer:

Your question is really threefold:

  1. Is it allowed for a restaurant to ask employees to pay the costs of errors?
  2. Should they?
  3. And, if they do, what should happen to the food?

We touched on the first parts in the past, but the fact that the entree was able to be resold introduces a new wrinkle.

First, as to the question of whether it is allowed in Maryland for the restaurant to charge you for keying in the wrong order (it varies widely by state); the answer, according to our friends at Avvo.com, is “maybe.” They explain, in the case of Maryland, that it is legal, “Only if you agree (in writing) that your employer can deduct from your pay for the mistake.” Often this is done as part of your sign-off for having read and understood the employee manual.

As to the question of whether they should, this is a matter of continuing controversy. On the one hand, it is hard enough for an operator to be profitable without factoring in human error. The other assumption is that charging employees may also help them be more conscientious. On the other hand, the costs of loss of morale and its associated turnover and impact on service may outweigh the benefit of the recouped expense. I personally see it as the cost of doing business unless the error is willful or negligent, but of course that’s easy for me to say from my perch as a hospitality educator.

Let’s consider, next, what is to be done with the food you unintentionally bought. To me, this is where the reality on the ground needs to match the policy. Some mistakes are difficult to recover from and clearly cost the operation money. If the policy is to charge employees for mistakes, a mistake in that case may just be exactly that—an unfortunate event caused by carelessness that you should own. For example, let’s imagine you mishear an order for a glass of wine and deliver the wrong one. The guest tastes it, notices the mistake and you replace it with the proper wine. That rejected wine is now trash and under that policy you just bought that guest a glass (hopefully at cost). In your case, however, it seems the entree was an easy recovery and quickly sent to another table before it hit the dining room. In my opinion, based on what you shared, you should not have been charged, even if the policy allows for it. At the very least, if you bought it, you should be able to pack it up for dinner after service.

As always, check with your attorney and restaurant association to be sure your practices are compliant. More on charging employees for mistakes here

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