One of the aspects of crew turnover that doesn’t get much attention is the firing process. A captain asked us what other captains thought about the causes of firing. We thought, at first, that the process would vary too much, considering each owner, each captain, each program and each crew being so different.
But when we asked the captains gathered for our monthly From the Bridge luncheon, we discovered that they actually had a lot of the same deal-breaker behavior. Just how they went about firing, however, created room for discussion.
When I tossed out the topic question — what is grounds for dismissal — the captains offered thoughts, and I didn’t interrupt.
“Alcohol,” one said.
“Insubordination,” said another.
“Anything that’s illegal.”
“Whatever they agreed to in the contract.”
As always, individual comments are not attributed to any one person in particular so as to encourage frank and open discussion. The attending captains are identified in a photograph in this article.
I stopped them when one captain mentioned a contract. I always got the sense that most boats — if we agree that most boats are below regulatory tonnage limits and not managed shoreside — don’t operate with contracts, not even for the captain. So who uses contracts?
“Anyone over 500 tons,” one captain said.
“Or anyone with a management company,” said another. “If I’ve got a problem, I call them and tell them to send me another one.”
So you don’t fire, then?
“The head of department fires,” this captain said.
(Hmm. Maybe this wasn’t such a great topic.)
“I have a general crew agreement,” a captain said. “I want it vague because I want to get rid of them when I want.”
“They’re there to do a job,” another said. “If they refuse or can’t perform a task, they go.”
The captains continued to toss out other reasons for letting a crew member go: The boat’s zero tolerance for drugs. A serious breach that creates a hazard for the boat.
And then someone mentioned breaking standing orders.
“I’ve got to agree with that,” one captain said. “I send them [standing orders] to new hires early and get them to agree before I fly them in, and we go from there. … And then a few months down the road, I have everybody read it and sign it again.”
Despite that, this captain stepped out of the ideal situation of simply dismissing crew who don’t abide by the standing orders and considered the reality of operating a yacht without all the crew needed.
“I have a hard time with this,” this captain confided. “The last few boats I ran were non-stop. When I fire somebody, I can’t get anyone tomorrow. So I wait and wait and give them all the chances in the world. It makes my job harder and costs the boat more to keep them, not to mention a huge amount of time. And it makes me look weak.”
“All that does is elongate their time on your vessel on their resume,” another captain countered. “You’re not helping the industry if you’re keeping someone on board that you should have let go months before. If you’re teaching them, that’s one thing, but …”
“It gets to the point where you have to do it,” said a third. “You give them a warning, and one more chance.”
The captains began discussing the impact of alcohol on crew and how often it creates employment problems onboard.
“As officers, we have a responsibility to create a safe environment and train crew,” one captain said. “We should be driving crew to keep their own personal standards.”
“Good luck with that,” another said quietly.
“Under ISM, nobody is allowed to be on a vessel if they are over the legal drink/drive level,” the first captain continued.
“Good luck with that, too,” the other replied.
One captain told the story of a hung-over crew member who was in the engine room helping the engineer. Instead of closing the valve when the engineer asked, the crew member opened it, and oil went everywhere. The captain telling the story talked about the irresponsibility of the hung-over crew member. But another captain kicked responsibility up a notch.
“The engineer should never have let that crew member help,” this captain said. “Or the captain either.”
“If they come back like that [drunk], I send them to their cabin and let them sleep it off,” another captain said. “They get away with it once. And I tell them, do it again and you’re fired. It’s their one warning.”
When another captain told a story of a chef who missed watch while at the dock, but who was still around as his personal items were still in his cabin, other captains supported his frustration.
“Failure to do a watch is grounds for dismissal,” one captain said.
“That’s the one that people on my boat get fired for,” said another.
In the commercial world, there are verbal notices and written notices before a mariner is dismissed, a captain said.
“In yachting, we eliminate the verbal,” this captain continued. “When I talk to a crew member, it gets written down in the log. And I tell them, the next time it happens, you’ll be fired.”
But the most common reason for dismissal, one captain said, is not getting along with the rest of the crew. It’s those personal issues, those he-said-she-said disputes that need a superior to sort out.
“I’ve had crew come to me and say it’s them or me,” one captain said. “I always let them go.”
But isn’t it hard to fire someone?
“It’s not hard,” another said. “If you’re taking the proper steps, you won’t feel uncomfortable.”
“Everyone I’ve fired has basically accepted it because they knew what was going to happen,” said a third.
“That’s why it’s important to have a good crew manual and solid standing orders, so they know where they stand,” a captain said.
“If you spell it all out and they disobey the rules, they know it’s their own fault,” another said.
Another behavior that is grounds for dismissal is when crew discuss boat politics with the owner or guests, one captain said.
“Oooo, immediate dismissal,” another captain said.
Preventing behavior like that comes down to the captain’s role as a leader, several captains said. But one captain wasn’t quite ready to accept full responsibility for crew behavior and told the story of a crew he’d heard about where the entire crew — captain included — got fired after a junior stew posted the yacht’s itinerary on Facebook, innocently telling her friends all she’d be doing for the summer.
“With the rise of social media, it’s harder to control,” this captain said.
When the situation arises when a captain has to let a crew member go, they offered these tips:
Fire first thing in the morning, at 8 a.m.
Have their plane ticket ready for a flight that afternoon.
Get their crew uniforms from them straight away.
Escort them (or have a department head escort them) to their cabin and stand watch as they pack up their personal belongings, then escort them off the boat.
Immediately have a crew meeting.
“That’s the most important thing about firing someone,” one captain said about the crew meeting. “You’ll see a sense of relief because chances are they’ve been carrying him.”
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. Captains who make their living running someone else’s yacht are welcome to join in the conversation. E-mail us for an invitation to our monthly From the Bridge luncheon.