Taking the Helm: Crew face uncertain dynamics in wake of #MeToo movement

Apr 3, 2019 by Paul Ferdais

Taking the Helm: by Paul Ferdais

The essence of the workplace on a boat is no different than that found on land, beyond the fact that the view out the window often changes. And what I mean by essence is that the general rules and laws normally found in society apply equally on a boat. Some may argue that the flag state rules are different here or there, or that trying to enforce the laws is much harder on a boat, but that’s beyond the point here.

In the workplace, people from all walks of life come together to do their job, and most have the same idea as to proper behavior: Don’t lie, cheat, steal, etc. What’s different on a boat, compared with a land-based workplace, is that the boat literally takes us away from home, family and friends. People on our team often become substitutes for these things.

Because our workplace moves and we spend a long time away from home, we can sometimes blur the work-life separation and possibly step out of line, saying something or doing  something beyond what everyone else might consider normal.

And now, with the #MeToo movement, many people, men specifically, aren’t sure how to move forward. It’s not that anything has really changed in terms of laws or regulations. Rather, it’s that the second-guessing of our actions can leave us paralyzed as to how to proceed. In the age of cameras in our gadgets and recording devices that seem to be everywhere, what we say and do can be used against us or taken out of context.

Perhaps a captain starts to develop romantic feelings for a chief stew and isn’t sure if behaviors used in the past to win someone over are reliable now in moving a possible relationship forward. Perhaps a chief stew wants more than friendship from a deckhand and doesn’t know how to advance their position. This new, more sensitive reality can create confusion.

When we add the concept of leadership into the mix, things can get ugly quickly. With a position of authority comes certain powers and often some privileges. With some leaders, that power may go to their head, resulting in inappropriate uses of their authority – especially since those around them may have a hard time speaking up and calling out bad behavior.

One possible unintended outcome of the #MeToo movement is that the industry will take a step backward. Male captains, driven by fear of false accusations or simply the desire to avoid the chance of impropriety, may begin hiring more men into roles women could fill.

The small minority of men and women who have behaved reprehensibly have made things bad for everyone, and now we seem to live in fear and suspicion of people of the opposite sex. This can only change one person at a time, one interaction at a time, one behavior at a time. Here is what leaders can do:

  • When hiring new crew, clearly articulate in the interview stage any policies in place regarding expected behavior of crew members. This should include any specific requirements that may be unique to the vessel.
  • Foster an environment where people feel safe to speak up. This means don’t make fun of, denigrate or belittle anyone who voices an opinion or suggestion, no matter how irrelevant or ridiculous you might think the idea is. Take people seriously and ask questions about what they suggest to show that you’re taking the suggestion at face value. This includes encouraging people to point out where you might be over-reaching your position as leader.
  • Hold yourself accountable and take responsibility. A leader’s actions speak volumes to those around them. When leaders own mistakes or accept responsibility for things that go wrong, others are encouraged to do the same.

A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is owner of The Marine Leadership Group (marineleadershipgroup.com), and a commanding officer in the Canadian coast guard. Comments are welcome below.