Toxic work environments

Everyone has a bad day, a bad week, a bad boss trip or a bad charter. That’s the nature of the yachting industry (and life in general has its ups, downs and twists and turns), but when the red flags keep on piling up and getting worse it might be time to acknowledge the fact you’re probably in a toxic work environment. If these issues are left unchecked then the crew is heading for serious trouble, but all is not lost! Toxic traits can be addressed, and can be fixed. Well. Sometimes…

On Social Media if someone dares to complain about their working conditions they’re usually met with one of two responses. Support and sympathy on the one hand, or “suck it up buttercup this is yachting if you don’t like it go ashore (continue rant here)” on the other. But hang on. Why should we suck it up? Why should crew be forced to just “accept that’s how things are on board yachts” when they really need not be? In the current climate where we have a shortage of experienced crew, we don’t have to put up with jack. There are plenty of other (better) opportunities out there. But before we pack up and jump ship, let’s figure out if you’re just having a bad week or if your situation is in dire straits. A toxic workplace could be caused by lots of factors so let’s have a look at those first.

Let’s start with the other crew. Is everyone miserable? How’s the level of morale on board? Is it low? If everyone is down in the dumps and looking for new jobs then that’s not a great sign. If the team turnover is so high they’ve popped a revolving door on the crew mess that’s also not a great sign. Why aren’t people staying onboard, and is the captain trying to change this? Can they, or is it out of their hands? Sometimes the toxicity comes all the way from the owner. Sadly we see this a lot, where the boss underpays, overworks, and underappreciates the crew. Bizarrely most of these owners have successful businesses ashore where their staff have adequate time off, training schemes, healthy work life balances yet when it comes to their yachting staff, they often can’t see the crew as people who have just the same needs.

Sometimes the toxicity comes from a group of crew members. If there are cliques on board, and others are being excluded, that sucks. If one group insists on speaking a different language that others don’t understand that’s exclusion. It’s also a potential safety issue but that’s another subject for another day. If you try to address it and you’re told “that’s just how we are” then you’re not going to be able to change things.

Another way a toxic environment is nurtured is by lack of communication. If the people at the top don’t tell the rest of the crew what’s going on it breeds negativity and contempt. There’s a huge difference between keeping some information back as protection (example: the boss complains about her coffee service and says something nasty about a stewardess – the chief might just let the stew know how the boss prefers their coffee to be served without adding the gnarly upsetting bits in which would only cause distress to her junior), and just blatantly withholding information which prevents people from doing their jobs well. How infuriating is it when you’re on standby and someone says “yeh they’re not coming until tomorrow now. Boss called the captain this morning.” And you’ve been rushing around like a headless chicken when you could have taken your time and done things in more detail?

Often the trouble trickles down from the top. When the people in charge are toxic, the rest of the team could well be moulded into the same style and then everyone’s horrible and unhappy. Sometimes they don’t even realise that’s happened until a new person rocks up to join the crew and jumps ship after a week due to the negativity. It can be a slow and steady process of manipulation, something narcissistic people are very, very good at.

What’s the best thing to do in these situations? Well I put the question out to lots of crew across my social media platforms. It was interesting to see how different groups responded. Facebook favours the older generations who are happy to comment publicly and the general consensus from the older saltier seadogs (much like myself, I’m definitely salty) was that life is too short for this. In the past, the older crew agreed that they’d have “sucked it up” and got on with it for a season, for fear of being shouted at by the old crew agents for not having longevity on their CVs, but now they pretty much all agreed that being unhappy in a work environment where you’re living 24/7 simply isn’t worth the hassle or the stress on one’s mental health. Many said looking back at some of the jobs they’d held over the years, if they could give advice to their younger selves, they’d have told them to pack up and head on out to the next port to find a yacht and crew where they would be appreciated, treated fairly and to pursue happiness.

That being said, many of us agreed that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, and working in toxic environments like the above did, in some way, help shape us into the tougher people we are today. Life can’t always be rosy, can it?

From my Instagram and tiktok crew, I had lots of private messages. It definitely feels that most of the younger crew are more aware of posting publicly and hesitant to do so. Perhaps it’s that the older ones no longer give a hoot about who sees their posts as they’ve already proven themselves in their careers and can be honest and open? That remains to be seen – anyway, the younger crew were all very unsure about what to do in these situations. Often it’s their first yacht experience, sadly, and that’s how they believe yachting is. Toxic. It shouldn’t be and it doesn’t have to be. So hopefully they will see the older crew shouting about it on Facebook!

Moving on, what if the toxic environment being caused by one person? This is actually something that’s potentially easier to fix. Something as a crew agent I see a lot is when you get a toxic HOD. The captain often can’t understand why he’s going through 10 deck crew in a season when the Chief Officer is so lovely and professional in front of him/her. I’ve got two words for you, Captain. Exit interview. I know I know, crew are terrified to say things in case it comes back to bite them especially when you’ve had a toxic HOD tell you “You’ll never work in this industry again!” (shaking their fist) or some other utter nonsense (you will, don’t worry), but seriously – if you’re going through crew in one area like the clappers, then reach out to all of them at the end of the season and ask for a quick chat. See what you can find out and you might be able to make one crew change that solves all your problems.

So, in theory the single toxic crew member is a resolvable issue right? Unless of course, it’s the captain or his/her partner who’s the raging red flag. In that case, unless you’re able to actually talk to the management or owners about this person, this is a very tricky problem to solve. A good management company should have a DPA (Designated Person Ashore) who can help with any HR and Crew issues, and if they can’t themselves (sometimes the DPA is more of a technical manager) they should be able to provide you with someone in their team who can log any issues or grievances. Note I said “should”. Unlike land-based industries in the corporate world, HR is often still pushed down the priority list for yachts, something the better management companies are addressing but some of the newer, smaller ones, might not have processes in place for yet. Legally speaking, under ISM and MLC, every yacht over 500gt or commercially registered, must have a Safety Management System (SMS) in place which identifies and addresses various crew issues including bullying, harassment, and toxic behaviour. But that doesn’t help the sub 500s does it?

Let’s say the toxic person onboard is the chief stewardess. As the stewardess where can you turn? Well firstly, I’d always recommend trying to address the situation yourself. Speak to that person and ask them if they’re ok. If this behaviour they’re exhibiting is new, maybe something is wrong. And maybe this can be addressed privately and the issues fixed. If this doesn’t work then the next step is to report it; this could be by talking to the Chief Officer, or to the Captain. If that doesn’t work you could take it a step further and speak to management, flag state, and/or nautilus if you’re a member for further advice.

The trouble is, most people get this far and think, “is it worth it?” Well that really does depend on you. I recently had a situation where I placed a stewardess onto a yacht with a captain I thought was a great guy, but then I discovered that since I’d worked with him a few years back he was now quite simply over yachting. He hired a chief stew who is a known troublemaker, she’s fantastic on her own but with juniors she’s a bully. She’s mean, she says awful things, then says it’s just how she is. Literally all her refs state this. The captain couldn’t see the issue, when the junior stew came to him he said he hadn’t got time for this drama and to sort it out themselves. I was also involved and asked him to mediate which he was appalled about. This is part of the job as captain, like it or not. You have to make sure your crew are happy, safe and in a healthy work environment. I told the stew to leave as soon as she could as the chief stew knew she could continue behaving badly, as the captain enabled it – in fact his head in the sand approach actively encouraged it. Two months later, I hear they’ve gone through two more junior stews which he now finds himself on Yotspot.

In the long run, yachts like this develop a terrible reputation and seeing as experienced crew are in short supply, will end up understaffed and in trouble with their owners. If you’re the one creating or feeding into this toxic environment, please have a word with yourselves. If you won’t, or can’t change, then strongly consider leaving the industry. Frankly we don’t want you abusing and scaring off our good crew. Literally everyone will tell you, a happy crew is a successful crew, so like it or not – as the team leader you have to work on this to ensure your team works well.

If after reading this you’ve just realised you’re in a toxic environment, I hope you can find a way to resolve it! Prioritise looking after yourselves, and looking after each other.