The Triton

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Living and working in tight quarters

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A topic that comes up again and again in yachting revolves around establishing standards of professionalism for crew and defining appropriate boundaries within a private service environment.

We live together in tight quarters, and it is inevitable that stews will develop close relationships with the owners and guests. It can be hard to find the line that separates friendly from familiar and to develop the professional character to know better than to step over it.

It comes down to respecting societal and professional limits and defining a code of moral values that outlines the behavior expected of qualified service professionals.

In today’s world, organizations of all sizes adopt an ethical code for the purpose of assisting everyone within the organization to apply the principles of “right” and “wrong” to their everyday decision-making.

Yachting is no different, but it can be hard to separate business from social principles when we live where we work and when we are exposed to so many personal details of the lives of owners, charter guests, and co-workers.

A workplace code of ethics for yachts can be hard to establish because the lines are frequently blurred. Make no mistake: owners are often just as much at fault as crew by encouraging relationships that are too familiar.

To build solid working relationships, we must develop rapport and trust with everyone onboard. But as stews, we are the yacht’s central figure for service. It is our job to make sure everyone feels at ease approaching us, relating to us, asking us questions, and considering our suggestions or advice.

Successful working relationships are anchored by a clear understanding of what your role is and, perhaps even more importantly, what your role isn’t. The following principles serve as a guide to maintaining privacy rules and professional boundaries:

  1. Define how you will refer to the owners and guests. Many captains prefer that you address them with a full formal surname at all times, such as Mr. Smith. If owners and guests insist otherwise, suggest a compromise such as Mr. S or Mr. Jim to signify recognition and respect.
  2. Be aware when socializing with owners, guests and other staff. You must maintain the ability to manage the service environment. If alcohol is consumed, inhibitions will be lowered. Keep conversations with guests short and polite.
  3. During entertainment events, maintain professional boundaries and proper safety procedures at all times. Safety and security come first.
  4. Do not assume that it is OK to use the status of the owners or guests for personal gain or to request personal resources such as tickets for sporting events or performances. Occasionally, these may be offered as bonuses; only then is it appropriate.
  5. Set a “no gossip” policy and help your co-workers uphold it.
  6. Watch for unhealthy relationship changes. While it may be flattering, be careful when the Mrs. takes you along on all her shopping trips. Your work is backing up back on the boat and your crew mates will resent it. When an owner or guest chooses to be friendly, it can be hard to maintain appropriate boundaries, but you must. No matter how “close” you have become, you are not part of the family. And avoid co-dependent behavior. Recognize when you do things like hide someone’s drinking or eating disorder. That’s when it’s time to step out of the relationship to do your job professionally (that is, bring the issue to the captain’s attention).
  7. Never, ever go above your department head or the captain’s level of authority because you think you have a “special” relationship with the owners or guests. Your bags may be on the dock in no time, and you will have a one-way ticket home.
  8. It may not always be appropriate to share your opinions, and it can be awkward if you are asked to do so. If asked for an opinion, you can always state something vague, like “my business is the care and well-being of the family”. By the same token, give advice carefully if it is requested of you. Think of the bigger picture, not just the situation at hand.
  9. Do not put yourself, your safety, your professional reputation, or your job in jeopardy with careless banter with guests. This can — and inevitably will — come back to bite you.
  10. You will be in a position to overhear many private conversations. Do not make judgments about business or  events within the family, and don’t repeat what you hear in private conversations to the rest of the crew.
  11. Be careful not to allow yourself to be drawn into quarrels or disputes if you are present in the room, and do not take sides. Leave the room, if possible. If physical violence takes place, notify the captain at once.
  12. Provide consistent levels of service and longevity. One of the toughest things for yacht owners and guests is never knowing what to expect when they come to the boat. They value permanence and count on you to keep service standards consistently high.

Each yacht seems to have its own social codes and ethics. Part of the problem lies with differing values and with a lack of clarity about precisely what behavior is expected of us. It is not always obvious exactly what that entails, and we rely on the captain and the owner to indicate clearly what they want.

There will always be cultural and generational differences as well, but it is up to the owner, the captain, and the management team to define what the personal and professional privacy expectations are and to outline the best practices for the team.

Alene Keenan has been a yacht stew for more than 20 years. She teaches at MPT and offers interior training through her company, Yacht Stew Solutions (www.yachtstewsolutions.com). Download her book, “The Yacht Service Bible,” on her site or amazon.com. Comments on this column are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com.

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