The “sandwich trick”: How ethically questionable practices get normalized

By Dennis Schoeneborn & Fabian Homberg.

At some resort hotels in Las Vegas, it is an established practice that guests at check-in hand-over to the receptionist a ‘$20 sandwich” (i.e. a banknote slipped between credit card and ID) in order to attain a room upgrade. Such benefits can include luxurious suites, top floor rooms with views, etc. In a recent study, Dennis Schoeneborn (Copenhagen Business School) and Fabian Homberg (Southampton Business School) have examined this ethically questionable practice that can be seen either as a “tip” or rather as a “bribe”, since it is paid before any services are received and with a clear expectation of reciprocity. Their study has been accepted for publication and is forthcoming at the Journal of Business Ethics.

In their article, the two researchers present findings from analyzing users self-reports on the website that includes numerous stories of “succeeding” or “failing” when “playing the sandwich trick”. To give one example – one guest named “J.”, staying at the Bally’s Hotel, reports: The receptionist “asked for my driver’s license and credit card. I slid the $20 sandwich over, and before releasing the sandwich I asked ‘Are there any complimentary upgrades available?’ He immediately knew what I was talking about. He nodded his head, placed my sandwich under the counter on the keyboard and began typing away. Within a few moments, […] [w]e were upgraded to a King JR Suite in the North Tower. Well worth the $20.”

By studying self-reports of playing the “$20 sandwich trick”, the researchers found that this ethically questionable practice “worked” especially when hotel guests engaged in informal interactions that allowed to avoid the social stigma of bribery, for instance, by making small talk with the receptionist or claiming to be celebrating a “special occasion” (e.g., a birthday or anniversary). Based on these findings, the study makes an important contribution to existing understandings of how typified social interactions can stabilize and “normalize” petty forms of corruption or other ethically questionable practices.

You can find the full article here: Schoeneborn, D., & Homberg, F. (forthcoming). Goffman’s Return to Las Vegas: Studying Corruption as Social Interaction. Journal of Business Ethics.

Dennis Schoeneborn is a Professor (MSO) of Organization, Communication, and CSR at Copenhagen Business School (Denmark).  Fabian Homberg is an Associate Professor of Human Resources and Organizational Behavior at Southampton Business School (UK).

Pic by Max Pixel