Imagine if you found out that half the generous tip you gave to the waitress last night for outstanding service had been confiscated by her manager and was being held ransom for a year, in a bid to coerce the waitress into staying in her job. Would you find this a bit morally dubious, or even wrong? I think most of us would; in effect the manager is confiscating our money (and the staff member’s) in a bid to improve staff retention.
I mention this scenario after speaking to two crew members who had just left boats where a ‘half-tip now, half-tip next year’ policy had been introduced for new crew members in an attempt to make them serve out their full year.
The reasons given for the policy, at first glance, seem well-justified:
1. Owners prefer a familiar face, and to have a new stewardess every trip makes their yacht feel less like the home it should be. (New girl doesn’t know how he likes his coffee, and keeps shaking like a leaf and squeaking every time he looks at her. This puts him off his coffee, which is terrible. )
2. Captains are trying to keep costs down- agency fees aren’t cheap.
3. It takes time to find new crew. And a lot of CV’s are written with the wand of Harry Potter. Hang on, he’s made up. Oh.
4. Training is a pain.
5. A new personality in the mix can be destabilising. Five in a year can be an upheaval.
Asking around, I found that crew who have good longevity seemed to support the half-tip idea. They were sick of seeing people come in, promising to stay 12 months, then running off after 12 weeks with ten grand of tips in their pocket. To go and work with the boyfriend, the very one that she’d sworn black-and-blue in the interview that she could live without for a year-quite happily. You can see how this would make crew grumpy. They’d only just taught her how to use the washing machine. And that the squeaking had to stop.
The yacht then goes through another cabin-shuffle and takes another spin on the training merry-go-round. I spoke to one engineer who commented, “I used to think the half-tip idea was a bit wrong. But now I think that the yacht is a year-round operation, it takes months of training before I get much use out of a new engineer. If someone comes for a couple of months, they aren’t putting in the hard months, the crossings, the shipyards- the times with no tips.”
The thing is, these are all good reasons. They’re just not good enough. The morality and legality of this policy are both dubious. It is financial coercion. Not only that, but charter guests are under the impression that the tip they leave goes to the crew who served them. Equally. So this policy is a misappropriation of charterer’s money. But let’s leave that alone. Let’s see if the policy is sound.
The way I see it (and please, feel free to write and disagree!), is that this policy has some serious flaws. To start with, why would a captain want to retain a crew member who would dearly like to be somewhere else, and is only staying on to get the ten grand that they have already earnt? This person is bound to be resentful, less positive, and quite possibly toxic in the crew environment. It’s like a relationship. If they are unhappy, set them free. Or you might just have someone putting metaphorical prawn shells in the air con vents and stinking out the whole operation. (I’ve heard this trick is not always metaphorical.)
With this policy, you have only two possible outcomes.
When a crew member wants to leave at eight months, but would lose half their tips as a result, the policy either:
A: Forces them to stay leaving an unhappy crew member peeling prawns, or
B: Has them quitting anyway, and running down the dock spewing vitriol about the yacht to all and sundry.
Flow-on problems from this are that your boat’s reputation starts to suffer, and the calibre of candidates is likely to drop. After all, if I was given a choice between a boat that told me I had to stay a year to receive my tips, and one that gave them out on that lovely envelope and champagne day of solidarity and good cheer…well, only a fool would choose the half-tip boat. Candidates with a history of excellent longevity will (and should) view this policy as a blatant show of mistrust …and wonder exactly what it is about this yacht that they have to resort to it? Why do they have such high turnover? After all, if you have a high turnover on your boat, then perhaps it’s time to do some soul-searching to find out why.
High Turnover: Crew’s fault or yacht’s fault?
- Ghastly owners. We’ve all had them. But unless you’ve been completely upfront in the interview, that the owner likes very young prostitutes or makes his stewardesses cry, then of course a crew member should be able to leave without penalty if they can’t cope.
- Sleazy crew. This a biggie. I once left a yacht after only three months because the sexual harrassment by the captain was intense. Should I have lost half the tips I had earned over that summer? Seriously?
- The more mundane types of unhappiness: They don’t fit with the crew. (Sounds to me like the boat might just be better without them.)
- They’ve figured out that yachting isn’t for them. Or this yacht, anyway. (See point above.)
- They want to leave because they’ve fallen in LOVE. “Not a good enough reason!” I hear the captains cry. It’s not professional.” Oh, of course it’s not, you old grump. It’s love. Utterly irrational, foolish and just plain bonkers. (They’re already in enough trouble, no need to make them suffer more.)
- Better opportunities elsewhere. Well, let’s face it, you’ve already lost them. Wish them luck. Make a dartboard of their face in the bridge. Whatever; it doesn’t change the outcome.
In yachting, we all go in blind. How can we coerce crew to stay a year on a yacht they know almost nothing about about before boarding? Is it reasonable? This industry asks young people to move into a massive share house where they know little about their owners, bosses, or colleagues. We are asking them to then go to sea, in very close quarters, with a bunch of people whose safety records, personality quirks and attitudes they do not know. Asking them to work, for a year, in the employ of an owner whose identity is kept secret during the interview, with an itinerary that changes each time the owner blinks.
I am not saying that the industry doesn’t have the right to ask candidates to live this crazy life for a whole year. This is yachting, and most crew do their year happily. However, I do not believe that captains have the right to financially coerce them into staying for the full 12 months.
But what about all that training?
On the point of training, it’s a valid concern, and by far the most persuasive , in my mind. Yachting is a year-round operation (and the tips don’t come in all year round). Training people takes time, and effort, and it’s disappointing in the extreme when you see all that investment disappear down the dock with their backpack and ten grand in their pocket. ‘They didn’t even know what a chamois was before they met me!’, you wail and gnash your teeth. (Which looks weird, by the way. You should stop doing that.)
But the fact of the matter is this: Every occupation trains people, with the understanding that not all will stay. Such is life, such is employment. The aim should be to make yours a yacht that your crewmembers want to stay on. Simple.
One last thing - both the yachts in question have 13th month bonuses. So when did a hefty bonus and a good reference cease being incentive enough? And if that’s the case, why is their lack of enthusiasm enough for you and your boat?
Face it. They’re just not that into you.
The telling point in all this is that neither of the crew members that told me of this policy had stayed their year. And so there they were, talking to a journalist at a boat show...
Finally, the only people who stand to win from this policy, are the crew members between whom the money gets divided when someone leaves before their 12 months are up. When financial success is built on the failure of others, troubles are brewing.
So, if you want to steal your crew’s money, bribe your employees, hurt the good name of your yacht, deter strong candidates and make your crew resent you from the day they board…then absolutely. Confiscate those tips. On the bright side, you’ll get less CVs to wade through. Your other option, when a crew member resigns before their year, is to take a deep breath, resist the urge to strangle them, then shake their hand and wish them well. They will walk away feeling they have been treated with decency, and will never look at a prawn again. Now that is a result.
For a deckhand's humorous view on the minefield that is crew tips, see 'Insert Tip Here'