RFIDed cocktail waitresses

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Guido Appenzeller pointed me to Harrah's plan to RFID tag their employees:
In what it refers to as a "pilot program," the casino is using the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, which send out signals that are tracked through readers installed at various locations. Harrah's has placed the readers on tables and bars in the beverage and gaming areas to determine how long it takes cocktail waitresses to serve customers, Harrah's Entertainment Chief Information Officer Tim Stanley said. "It just looks at the cycle time between service," he explained.

"We are taking some of that technology and attaching it to the beverage servers on the casino floor," Stanley added. "We at Harrah's are zealous about customer service. We know if customers have to wait too long for a drink or a coffee, they get upset." The program, he said, was designed to cut down on wait times for the casino's "best customers."

Guido's not thrilled with this plan:

Harrah's Casino is RFID tagging their waitresses to "improve service". This registers as at least 500 milli-Orwell on my Big Brother Scale.

I certainly agree it's no fun to be monitored all the time, but one thing that's hard for people in White Collar jobs like the tech industry to remember is that in most highly repetitive jobs (of which waitressing is one) management closely monitors your performance. When I was a teenager, I worked in a mail order operation in both the picking (taking items off the shelf) and packing (putting them in boxes) operations and in both cases the number of items we handled was monitored and used to compute incentives. (As a side note, it was truly humbling how much difference there was between me and the people who were really good). So, it's not clear to me that this scheme is any more Big Brotherish then monitoring how many items I shove in boxes every day. The reason they don't monitor your performance as (say) a computer programmer this way is that there aren't any really good metrics (SLOC, for instance, is a joke.)

The more interesting question from my perspective is why Harrahs is choosing this particular monitoring scheme, as opposed to (say) monitoring how many drinks they serve. My intuition is that there are two reasons.

First, unlike an ordinary restaurant or bar, Harrah's derives their revenue primarily from gambling, not from beverage sales. So, their incentive isn't to push the maximum amount of alcohol on people but rather to align the quality of service to the amount of gambling that a particular gambler is doing. This makes metrics like total drinks served less useful than they would be in a bar. A related issue is that because drinks are generally subsidized, it's probably easier than usual for a waitress to pump up the amount of drinks she serves merely by picking out the people consuming a lot of alcohol.

The second issue is that the agency issues are probably harder in this environment than in an ordinary bar. In your average bar, tips are roughly correlated with the amount of drinks served and while there are big and small tippers, variance is not that high. My impression is that in casinos there's an enormous amount of tip variance and that the high tippers may or may not be the big gamblers. And of course the casino knows who the big gamblers are directly so they can incentivize more accurately.

One more thing that's worth noting if you think this system is objectionable: casinos have been doing fine-grained monitoring of exactly how much money customers gamble for years, in some cases manually and in some cases automatically with those affinity cards that they love to hand out. That's how they decide how much to comp you.

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