Calling out bad behaviour

Seafarers need to be empowered to speak out against bullying

By Felicity Landon

Insulted, intimidated and isolated. Bullying, sexual harassment or any kind of abuse can happen anywhere, of course, but for seafarers confined to a vessel out on the ocean, the impact can be particularly devastating. What can seafarers do? And what are employers doing to help them?

‘Standing up to bullies’ was the title of the message from the chief executive in Anglo-Eastern’s recent newsletter. Bjorn Hojgaard wrote: “I am glad to say that it is largely on the fringes only, but we do get occasional reports of abuse exercised by shipboard management over more junior members of the team on board. Such behaviour is unacceptable, and anyone exercising their powers in this manner should bow their heads in shame.”

He urged all seafarers to call out a bully when they see one. “Don’t be a victim – and don’t accept it when you see others bullied”, he wrote. “We should all call out improper behaviour when we see it and hold each other accountable to an acceptable standard for workplace interaction.”

Everyone working in Anglo-Eastern has a right to be treated with dignity and respect, he emphasised. “It is the responsibility of the leaders in the organisation to set the tone, and that tone needs to be one of civility and high standards for ethical behaviour.” The recent headlines around Maersk facing sexual assault at sea charges in New York has refocused attention on the whole topic of bullying and assault on board ships.

Talking to The Sea, Hojgaard says: “It is a reality in all workplaces but at sea it is probably worse because of the relative isolation.” The nature of shipping “creates islands where things can go on without oversight of other people and go too far”. He also thinks the hierarchical system on board, with greater power distance between people – “the hierarchical steepness of the pyramid” – can lead to an environment where it is easier for bullies to thrive.

However, he doesn’t think that the increased publicity around the issue means that things have got worse. “One thing I would say, many of the youngest on board, the cadets, seem to be more vocal than they would have been in bygone times – and that is a good thing. They seem to push back, enough is enough, they have a shorter fuse – and that surprises the bullies.” There are people who have the mentality “that is how I was treated when I was young, I have to treat people the same”, says Hojgaard. “It is almost like a rite of passage for some but that is just silly. We don’t have to suffer to get somewhere in life.”

What can victims do if they are ‘trapped’ on board with the perpetrator? “Speak up. If you can’t do so on board, talk to a superintendent ashore or DPA. We have hotlines that people can call to report anything. They must speak up, because that’s the way we can help.”

More attention

Lena Dyring is cruise operations director of the Norwegian Seafarers’ Union and women’s representative in the International Transport Workers’ Federation seafarers’ section. She is leading work with the section and affiliated unions to establish an online hub for women seafarers and their unions to share views and resources.

Harassment and abuse at sea have always been there, but now it is getting more attention because it is becoming less acceptable, she says. “In the industry before, there was always this trope that you have to be tough to work at sea – accept it and that’s the way it is, whereas it is becoming less acceptable, which is good. But yes, definitely it is still a big problem.”

Research in Norway has shown that the younger generation – men and women – are much less willing to accept a working environment where bullying and harassment is accepted, says Dyring. Employers that handle such issues in a professional way, and address them as they should, will be more attractive to potential employees, she says, while those that still accept the ‘old ways of working’ will end up at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to attracting seafarers.

Seafarers are already vulnerable, and this is exacerbated in situations where there is only one woman on board. “Seafarers work in very isolated conditions. If there are no options to report, whether it’s lack of internet access or of ways to report, then you are in this very confined environment, stuck with your bully or harasser with no escape. Being on a ship for months on end with nowhere to go puts people in a very vulnerable position.”

There can be friction on board cruise ships because so many people from different backgrounds and cultures are working together, but the upside there is having more people to talk to, and employees will likely have better access to the internet and ways to report, says Dyring.

The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) sets out requirements for employers to have grievance procedures and provide ways for seafarers to report problems. The expectation is that a seafarer should try to follow the chain of command and report to whoever they normally report to, says Dyring. “However, often that person can be the problem. Then you are allowed to skip a step in the chain of command or report directly to shoreside. Or you can go ahead and go to your union, to the ITF, or even to the flag State, which also has a legal requirement to intervene. But the most efficient and effective way is to try to address it on board if that feels safe.”

Zero tolerance

Lloyd’s Register and Lloyd’s Register Foundation recently launched ‘Shining a light on seafarer wellbeing’, a report which highlights the links between wellbeing and safety and stresses the need for structural support for seafarers and improved assessment of mental wellbeing.

Philippa Charlton, LR’s chief marketing officer; says: “There is so much more awareness now about mental health and wellbeing, especially in this industry, precipitated by Covid, with seafarers away from home and family for months and months. Despite all the difficulties they face, the positives that come out of that are that they have been recognised as key workers, mental health and wellbeing have been recognised and ship management companies are investing resources and time in improving and responding to that.

“Zero tolerance” is the key when it comes to bullying and harassment, she says. She agrees that if the issues are not addressed, the industry will face a significant challenge when it comes to recruiting and retaining seafarers. “How do you encourage people to go for a job at sea, if they are likely to face sexual harassment, etc.?”

She says there should be protocols in place for seafarers and these should be made clear as part of any training for new employees. “When you join a company, you ask about pay and conditions. Organisations should make it part of the onboarding and training – this is what we expect from you on board our ships, this is what we do to support you, and this is what to do if you are not being treated with respect.”

Shipping should nor differ from any other industry in how it assesses leadership candidates, she insists. “Whether you are a bank, a supermarket, onshore or at sea, if you recruit leadership, you should be using baseline psychometrics to understand that person’s character and attitude.” Also some red flags should be picked up at interview, she added.

Charlton believes the industry is going in the right direction, particularly with recognition and understanding of how challenging the past two years have been for seafarers. Dealing with bullying and harassment is an essential part of the drive for overall wellbeing. “Not that it wasn’t important before, but it has accelerated the desire by the industry to really address these concerns – recognising that if you are not in a good physical and mental state, that is the biggest risk to safety and cause of accidents. The more evidence we have of the impact of mental health on people’s ability to do their job safely, the more that is informing owners that they need to address this if they want to avoid problems in the future.”

Increased openness

Natalie Shaw, director of employment affairs at the International Chamber of Shipping, says the issue of harassment and bullying has been there for centu­ries; part of it is the way that ships are run, with a militaristic, naval tone to the command structure. “What is new is that people are more willing to be open than they were in the past,” she says. “One could argue that is a sign of things getting better on board, because we now have complaints procedures, systems where­ by people can start to call things into account. The problem is where you have someone on board who doesn’t actually take care of these things, and where there isn’t a good enough system at head office to follow up on them. We are starting to move in the right direction, but we are not totally there.”

The pandemic had an impact, she adds, with seafarers stranded at sea for months and officers under increasing pressure too. “This has understandably made tempers fray a bit more than they would have done two years ago.”

Shaw says there used to be a culture whereby if you went on board, you had to understand your place – ‘if you want your job, take it or leave it’ – but that is now unacceptable. People are much less accepting of bad behaviour where previously it would have been ‘that’s the way it is’. The issue of harassment and bullying, and what can be done better, will come to the fore in MLC discussions at the IMO later this year, particularly after the headlines in the US around the treatment of cadets on board, she says.

Correction or criticism?

But here’s a question: where do we draw the line between firm words of instruction or correction in an environment where carrying out a task incorrectly can be catastrophic, and a perception of harassment? In some cases, that depends on the people involved.

“It is difficult – one person’s perspective is they are being harassed; another’s is that they are being supervised. When does being told you need to buck up a bit become harassment? It is difficult to rule what is and what isn’t.”

Work is under way at LR to produce a ‘diversity tool kit’ that will consider how all cultures, genders, ages and abilities interact on board and how those relationships can be enhanced. “We believe that’s a more appropriate way to look at how you can enhance teamwork and creativity and acceptance on board – focus on the positive rather than the negative,” says Shaw. “Sometimes people can misunderstand what’s said. Lots of words can be taken two ways, depending on intonation; something that might be meant perfectly well in one way could be perceived differently in another culture.”

Hojgaard says there is a risk that if someone professionally corrects a junior who is learning on the job – explaining what they did wrong and what they should have done – some juniors would take that instruction from a superior as bullying.

“There are ‘snowflakes’ out there that just melt for nothing. But firstly, it is the seniors who need to be aware of the ease of bruising the young and inexperienced. One way of dealing with that is to understand that you can correct someone without raising your voice or being angry or sounding scolding – ‘I am going to talk to you from a professional viewpoint about what is good/bad about what you did, to help you develop and learn’.”

That can be difficult for people who have been ‘raised to be scolded’ and now do the scolding, he says. “But it is all about creating awareness and an environment where there is that natural respect for people’s boundaries and listening as much as speaking.”

Anglo-Eastern does the pre-sea training for its cadets in-house, and an important part of this is instilling company values and talking about leadership, says Hojgaard. “We say to our seniors – think about other people, perhaps the juniors on board, as your children. Why would you bully your children? You want them to be the best they can be, so try to build them up rather than bring them down.”

As for the habitual bully, he says: “People who don’t respect other people usually don’t respect themselves.” The problem, he says, is that the dominating go-getters can be the really efficient workers who get things done – “but also the ones to create the most power distance and who can be pretty rough with their subordinates”. You have to take the line and say they can’t be on the team if they don’t change behaviour, he says. It would be dangerous to ‘not notice’ such behaviour because you are happy with the positive, he warns. “We say, as a leader you have to be clear – you can be a star performer but not if it means terrorising the team.”

Hojgaard says companies must make sure there are ‘clear rules of engagement’ and show through their actions that they are serious about protecting minority interests. “If you want an inclusive environment, you have to give space for any minority in a way that is respectful,” he says. “At the end of the day, don’t be any different to how you would be in a normal setting at home – treat people how you want to be treated yourself. Just because it’s a ship, don’t think there is a different set of standards – there really isn’t.