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Murphy: ‘Stinky guy’ and other case studies from STCW leadership classes

Nov 5, 2015 10:29 AM

So, have you taken your STCW-required leadership class yet? What, do I hear some groaning out there? Well, all of us have had to deal with situations that we would have preferred not to. And during the week of this leadership class you will talk about all kinds of stuff that might even help you in the future.

I want to bring up a few interesting things that have been dealt with over the recent years. The first situation I have been personally involved with a couple of times: that “stinky guy” on the crew. If you have been in the maritime industry for very long, you have had one of them on your crew.

The first “stinker” I had to deal with was a cook on a tugboat I was running. Now, personally I can get along with a guy (or gal for that matter) who might have a little odor from time to time. But this guy was ripe! I must say that dining was just not the same after this stinky guy made it!

During the ensuing weeks, we tried all kinds of things to get him to shower at least once in a while. There was the bar of deodorant soap that was artfully placed in the microwave. There was the fresh towel and washcloth that was placed on his bunk. And my personal favorite: sneaking into his cabin, liberating his dirty clothes and washing them for him. (No, I didn’t know they were going to do that.)

Even this desperate act did nothing to help. He just kept wearing the one set of dirty clothes that he had on when his other stuff got washed. So what can you do about this situation?

I had talked with the guy “socially” about his odor problem a few times with no results. Late one night I cornered him and was more direct about what was going on. Come to find out, he had a skin condition and was allergic to soaps and shampoos. A-ha! I finally had something to work with!

Well, do you think this would be considered a “handicap” situation and was he protected as a special group? Possibly, but he was the cook after all. So, I tried to work with the guy. I gave him an open boat expense to buy any product that he could use and not have a reaction to.

Did that work? No, unfortunately it didn’t. But at least I found a bit of the reason why he was so stinky. As it worked out, the end of the season came around before I could get rid of him. What is the moral to this story you ask? The moral is that not all situations are as they seem on the surface, and not all situations have an easy solution.

The next situation is one that came up in one of my recent leadership classes. I had two guys from the same tug that had to deal with, as I might call it, “the naked truth.” The cook on the crew enjoyed sunbathing in the buff.

Both of these guys were new crewmembers on a fairly small tug doing near-shore runs. No one told them about the “special interest” of the cook. The cook on his breaks would go up to the bow of the boat and enjoy nature in all its glory. Both new crewmembers on their first day encountered this guy while attending to their regular duties.

So what do you think? How would you deal with this situation? Is it OK to hang out on deck in a public area in the buff? Would it make a difference if it had been a woman rather than a guy? What is your company policy for this situation? Or is it a problem at all?

That last question is the most important one. When is a situation a “problem”? That answer is more elusive. For most situations, a “problem” exists when someone perceives it to be a problem. In this particular situation on this tugboat, the cook being in the buff in public areas was a problem, to these guys anyway.

The captain was a guy who avoided conflict at all cost, so no help there. The crew guys did not like the cook’s actions, but did not want to directly confront the cook. The most important rule aboard ship: Don’t piss off the captain or the cook! The port captain was, lets say, “distant” on the subject. So what can you do?

As it worked out, company policy came to their rescue. The company requirement was that all crewmembers at all times when out on deck must wear personal protective equipment: hard hat, steel-toed shoes, gloves, eye protection and the like. At least in this one situation, all those company rules that you love to hate came in handy.

OK, fine, so you do not want some guy hanging around on deck in the buff. What if it were in fact a female? Another situation that came up in class was a research vessel out on assignment. There were young college students working as research assistants on the trip.

The trip was in warm climates, so a few women started wearing bikini tops to work. Before long, they all were wearing them. To make things clear, these research assistants are not regular crew, but rather part of the science group. One of the regular deck crew (a female) did not like these researchers running around dressed as they were. The guys did not seem to mind.

So what do you think about this situation? Is it OK, or is it something that you would need to address? They are not part of your regular crew, but there have been complaints by your regular deck crew who do not like the situation. What are you going to do?

The question here is do you even have the authority to require the science team to conform to your wishes? Does it really matter if only one crewmember is unhappy? The answer to this last question: You bet it matters!

If you ever get dragged into court, you will be hit with three simple questions: 1) What did you know? 2) When did you know it? 3) What did you do about it? If you have the wrong answers to these questions, then things will not go well for you.

In this particular situation, the captain had a meeting with the chief scientist. They agreed on the restriction that the research assistants would wear at least a T-shirt during work hours. In exchange for this restriction, they set up a sunbathing area that was not in a public access area. It was on top of the housing unit.

In this special area, anyone could wear whatever he or she wished to wear, or not wear. The trick here is the area had to be outside the normal work access of the deck crew. This calmed things down and almost everyone was happy.

This is just a small sampling of the direction our conversations wander during the leadership class. We touch on all kinds of uncomfortable sensitive social questions. No, I certainly do not have all the answers to all the situations you might find yourself in. But between the group members, we usually come up with some interesting ideas.

I must add that some classes are way more fun and interesting than others. If the group wants to be there, and more importantly wants to participate in the discussions, then we all benefit way more from the class. I might suggest that when you go to this class — as you are required to under STCW — show up with the attitude that you’re going to get your money’s worth out of it.

If you go in with a good attitude, you just might enjoy the time spent and walk away with some new tools to help in your day-to-day work life, or even your private life. And on a side note, my wonderful wife likes when I go off to teach this class. For some reason, she thinks I come back home a bit … different.

Capt. Dennis Murphy, of Olympia, Wash., is a longtime shipmaster and is an instructor at Pacific Maritime Institute, where he splits his time between teaching classes and working in the simulation department. He also teaches at Fremont Maritime.

Nov 5, 2015 01:56 pm
 Posted by  Jill F. Russell

Good article, Dennis. I hope the main thing that folks reading your article, or taking a leadership class, get is that you cannot lead by doing NOTHING. Leadership requires action, and assuming that a well-placed washcloth will get results is "head in the sand" type of stuff. It was only after you actually had a direct and clear conversation with the guy that you got answers and started moving toward solutions. Direct conversations are the most scary for all the people involved, but they are truly what separates someone with a title versus someone who actually leads their crew. Again, thanks for the article and for tackling this subject!

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