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Crewmates with bad attitude require thoughtful response

Mar 26, 2015 01:33 PM

There’s no avoiding it. Living, working and eating meals with the same crewmembers day in and day out for weeks or months at a time is part of life aboard ship. Anyone who’s been to sea for any length of time knows that working well with others is not always easy, but it’s important for safety and the efficient running of the vessel. It’s so important, in fact, that even the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW ’95) basic safety training course deals specifically with personal and social responsibilities on board — including maintaining a good attitude at sea and getting along with the rest of the crew. 

Long hours, rough weather and lack of sleep take their toll, and can put even the most upbeat mariner on edge. I remember being a young third mate finishing up a demanding 90-day work tour. Expecting a relief in Long Beach, Calif., I had been dreaming of the fun road trip my wife and I had planned for my vacation time. The next morning, however, I found out from the captain that my relief wasn’t able to join the ship, and so I would have to stay on another two weeks until we returned to the West Coast again. Unable to contain my frustration and anger, I went down on the pier and called my wife, complaining long and loudly about how unfair the whole situation was. 

After we left Long Beach, for the next few days at sea I pouted, telling anyone within earshot about my awful situation. Finally getting over it, I realized what a pain I had been, and apologized to the chief mate for my behavior. A quiet man by nature, he just smiled and said, “Thanks, Kelly. You were beginning to sound whiny.” We both had a good laugh about it, and I got off in San Francisco 10 days later.

At sea, living and working together 24/7, most mariners overlook a shipmate’s temporary grumpiness or the occasional being touchier than normal. As professionals in a demanding industry, the understanding that everyone has “one of those days” usually allows temper tempests to blow over quickly. There are times, however, when a crewmember’s negativity and unhappiness are more than just a passing huffiness due to some real or imagined injustice. Although rare in my experience, I have worked with a few people who were extremely unpleasant — always negative, complaining and difficult to be around. 

An able seaman I had on my watch once during a work tour on a crude oil tanker was one of these unpleasant individuals. I’d say good morning or good evening, and he would reply, “Yeah, what’s so good about it?” I’d talk about the great food on board, and he would gripe that the portions were too small, the quality of the stores substandard, or how he thought that the cooks were unable to even grill a steak correctly. At drills or during mooring operations, the AB would often foment discontent until it resulted in bad feelings, or even a shouting match. It wasn’t long before others followed his lead and started complaining about something or someone on board, and after 60 days his negativity ultimately splattered on everyone. Then one night as we were approaching the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the captain came up without warning and told the AB he was fired, and to pack his bags because he would be leaving the ship the next day in Anacortes — two months before he was scheduled to get off. 

A study out of the University of Washington (UW) a few years ago focused on “toxic” employees in the workplace, and determined that not only can their negativity bring down morale, reduce teamwork and spread ill will, but it may even undermine the success of the entire organization. That’s why, in my opinion, top-notch vessel operators seek to minimize the possibility of strife among the crew before it happens. I know of one company that uses pre-employment personality testing when hiring prospective officers and crew for its vessels. Others use training and instruction, in conjunction with STCW and/or company vessel familiarization requirements. Once, when I was the relief chief mate on an oceanographic ship, the entire crew and science party watched a video on safety and shipboard etiquette before getting underway, covering topics such as treating others with respect and being a good shipmate. Those of us in the vessel crew had to read the company standards for appropriate workplace conduct, and initial that we had done so. I was impressed with how smoothly all the scientists and crew worked together that trip, and attributed a good part of that to the pre-cruise training video and the clear company policy.

The UW study noted that many companies do not have policies in place to adequately deal with “toxic” employees on the job. The best vessel operators I have worked for had very unambiguous, well-established procedures for dealing with consistently poor employee attitude and performance. On one ship I recall how, depending upon what department the mariner was in, the captain or chief engineer had to counsel the individual first. Strengths and shortcomings were to be discussed, along with a plan to improve attitude and/or work performance, focusing on constructive criticism and encouragement. If the work problems remained unchanged, a warning letter was then given. The last step in the process was job termination — but only if, after all those chances and warnings, the mariner still hadn’t improved. 

Professional mariners today are held to higher standards than ever before, and are expected to act in a mature, conscientious manner on the job — or be fired. Any job termination, however, should not be a surprise. Every maritime company, therefore, needs to act professionally as well, ensuring that the mariners on board are treated fairly, respectfully and legally. 

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin’.     

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@professionalmariner.com.

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