March 19, 2008

Postcards from the Conveyor Belt

I got a call on my mobile phone a week or so ago. It went like this
“Hello, is that Capt. X?”
“Yes, speaking”, I said.
“This is Capt. Y. Can you be in London on the 18th?” a male voice said.
“Where are you calling from?” I inquired in irritation.
“Oh, this is Z shipping. Are you available?” (Z shipping is not an unknown manning agency in Mumbai, in case you are wondering)
“Sorry, I will not be available...”, I say
“Can you tell your friends....?”, he wonders.

Not if I want them to remain friends, I thought.

My first reaction was, here is a guy willing to employ somebody to command a ship (and has commanded at least one himself, by the dubious looks of things) - whom he has never seen, never spoken to or even emailed before. Sight unseen, without observing basic formalities, without caring to make small talk to try to begin to gauge if I was actually worth employing.
Regardless of the manning crisis, he therefore runs a substandard setup, and I want no part of it.

Actually, what Capt. Y did is this- in four or five sentences over less than a two minute phone call, he put me off ‘Z Shipping’ forever. Not to speak of my influence on anybody I might choose to talk to about his company.

Conversely, if I had been looking for a ship, and Z shipping had no requirement for a Master, chances are high my emails would go unanswered and my phone calls would not lead to anything beyond “we will let you know” (which they never would). I have experience of that, too. And yes, regardless of their lack of openings, and anyway at the first possibility, a ‘form’ would be sent to me on email or otherwise, asking me to fill it up, probably with a stock ‘Dear candidate’ letter. To keep my details in their database, of course.

(Collecting resumes’ for databases seems to be a favourite pastime in Mumbai. Everybody seems to be doing it. I have visions of trainloads of people migrating from one job to another with a database CD copied from previous employers as their USP.)

A confession: anybody who sends me forms a first step usually doesn’t hear from me again, regardless of the state of the employment market. I understand the need to send a resume’ across to the Principals, but I am of the opinion that as a reasonably senior seafarer is entitled to a brief lowdown of the Company and his chances of a job in it before he is asked to fill up forms. A first reaction of “fill up a form” after a resume’ has already been sent gives me the impression that I am talking to a data entry operator, not a maritime professional.

The sad fact of the matter is that headhunters tend to work with an assembly-line mentality. Right from this initial approach, the toddlers next steps- interviews, agreement, pre-joining formalities, visas, ticketing- usually underlines this feeling, even when a seafarer is re-joining the same firm. Fill up forms, make photocopies, handover photographs, hurry and do your medicals- the doctor will close in half an hour, come back for your ticket asap... I wonder if there are there others who feel like canned tuna every time they join a ship, at the end of a conveyor belt, like I sometimes do.

Sadly, too, there is minimal thought given to providing the seafarer pertinent information about the ship he is joining. As a Master, I have spent four days in transit once, including visiting the management head office for a ‘briefing’, and not been told of major problems on the ship I was taking over. Probably intentionally, in fear that I would refuse the assignment.

In any event, at these briefings, I have been told nothing useful most of the time. These are usually ISM requirements; perhaps they are not meant to be practical. Or perhaps it is not considered important enough to provide pertinent information. Familiarisation, like familiarity, can sometimes breed contempt.

I have once commented on this. The response indicated puzzlement; this was a game we are all playing, come on! ‘You will come to know everything once you are on board, anyway’, I was told, a little condescendingly.

Ridiculously often, I have known more about the ships I was joining by researching their names on the internet than from the information given to be in manning offices. Surprise was expressed about the depth of my information once at one office, so I went on their computer and showed them where I had got the information from. (It was from a Classification Society website.)

A few years ago, I have sat with another officer at a STD booth in Mumbai while he called the company office in Delhi, who had given him an absolutely contrasting view of some basic terms and conditions which he wanted to clarify, and which he found out about at their head office in Mumbai. The fact that we had just walked out of the same head office- where nobody had even offered a phone to this senior officer who had worked for them for years- knowing he was going out to make the call to their own office in Delhi, disgusted me.

Every seafarer has these kinds of incidents to narrate. My point is only is to underline that this unprofessional assembly line process leaves a bad taste in the mouth and does not make for good relations between employers and employees. And this bad taste translates in the end into employees who have fewer reasons to rejoin.

This is what I would do, if I was sitting on the other side of the table:

1. At first contact (whether we call a seafarer or whether he calls us first), a stock response along the lines of ‘Hello, we are Differentship, and we would like you to consider joining us on a long term association. We represent a, b, c, d companies who offer employment on x, y, z kinds of ships. I would like to send you a mail with further details, meanwhile do visit for an overview’. (If no opportunities exist, and if the seafarer has approached us, he would be told so politely and frankly, and invited to enquire at a future known date. He would also be requested to send us a short email with contact details and a few lines on his rank and experience. )
2. The mail would follow immediately, would be a stock one-without a ‘Dear Candidate’, and include
· details of ships, or better still, a link on a website with these details
· Standard terms and conditions with an indication of flexibility where possible.
· Reasons why Differentship is better, or indeed, different.
· Upcoming vacancies in the next month or two, on which ships.
· An invitation to visit us in person, or failing which, an invitation to discuss details on the phone
· A stated willingness, even eagerness- to match his requirements and ours.
· Details of the selection process, and an end date by which a yes/no would be intimated.

And, subsequently,

3. Each stage of the process would be ensured personalised, professional, dignified and smooth.
4. If a person is selected, and if the pre-joining briefing is in my domain, it would be practical, accurate, honest and useful.
5. The potential employee would be kept updated at each stage of the process.
6. Nothing pertinent would be hidden from him at any stage.
7. If the employment doesn’t work out this time, we would keep all doors open for it to maybe work out in the future- unless it is decided not to employ him at all, in which case I would let him know.
8. If Differentship does so much of its business on the phone, then phone etiquette and the projection of professionalism will be a basic requirement from its entire staff that pick up a phone, anytime, anywhere. Nobody will open a conversation with “Can you be in London on the 18th” with a complete stranger.

The problem with this as far as we at Differentship were concerned would be that it would require us to get our act together, project our requirements and maybe train our people; not a problem, actually, because that would result in a good business practice. We would be automatically working on enhancing the pre joining experience of an employee, which would
translate more into his wanting to come back to us, not to speak of the excellent word-of- mouth he would give us throughout the industry.

We would indeed be different, and better, because we would be sweating the small stuff.
Professional touches, personalised interest, regard for potential employees prior experience, regard for his time, all done in a dignified manner- this is not rocket science, but it works. First impressions and small touches remain, which is why we paint gangways so often.

Finally, another pet peeve. I for one, dislike being referred to – whether by email or otherwise- as a ‘candidate’. I am a professional seeking a long term association with other professionals. I have a name and rank, though not a serial number yet- and I much prefer being addressed by any of those, even my first name. Frankly, ‘Dear Candidate’ stinks. Besides, how would we at Differentship respond to an email sent addressed to ‘Dear Headhunter’?

Unless I am running in the US Presidential elections, of course.

Then it is different. ‘The Candidate’, then, is salutary.

Or, after Mr. George Bush, is it?

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