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Clear Sailing

Managing the HR Challenges of a Multinational Cruise Ship


If you’ve ever been on a luxury cruise ship, you marvel at the precision of the crew and their crisp, yet cheerful attention to your every need. The next thing you notice is the cultural diversity. You begin to wonder how this harmonic, self-contained organization made up of people from all corners of the world is held together — and you start to think about the lessons you can apply to the management of your organization, particularly in promoting a vibrant company culture and across-the-board commitment to your goals and values.

Of course, you quickly realize that a cruise is not supposed to mirror real life. It is supposed to be a fantasy, and that it takes remarkable discipline to sustain it. While the level of customer service aboard a luxury cruise ship may be beyond what even the most conscientious customer-oriented organization can muster, an HR administrator can draw many lessons from a study of their operations.

A luxury cruise ship can contain more than 1,000 crew members. It is in many ways a microcosm of a multinational corporation with some of the same challenges. HR must make sure:

  • Multinational staffs are working cooperatively.
  • Grievances are addressed.
  • Employees are motivated, attentive and safety-minded.
  • Payroll is adroitly handled.
  • All processes are properly documented and in compliance.

There are, of course, many differences between a cruise ship and a multinational corporation.

These include:

  • Structural differences (for example, the ship’s hier- archy and the specific challenges of working at sea)
  • Day-to-day challenges of a workforce that doesn’t go home at night
  • Customers on board the ship who require attentive 24x7 service
  • Crewmembers who work long hours (seven days a week, 10 hours a day) and are confined for months at a time to small cabins
  • Crewmembers who are assigned various roommates who often hail from different parts of the world
  • The very thin line — if there’s one at all — between work and life, which itself can cause major HR headaches.

The HR Challenges

Because maintaining the highest levels of customer service is part of what makes the cruise experience so distinctive, HR must take great pains in maintaining a cohesive, vibrant company culture, assuring the highest performance standards for employees at all levels. The following list delves into the challenges of managing an ecosystem made up of a wide range of people from all over the globe, occupying dozens of very specific roles … and how the world’s best cruise ships manage to harmonize all these elements into a superior customer experience.

Managing the Wide Range of Onboard Roles. A cruise operation is divided into several departments that include the deck, engine, medical, entertainment and hotel departments (the latter provides work for the largest proportion of employees). Typical positions include waiters, chefs, cabin stewards, gift shop assistants, casino dealers, photographers, spa therapists and many others.

Language and Cultural Barriers. Language barriers are the No. 1 challenge to managing and training a global workforce. The workforce of a typical cruise ship can be composed of more than 50 nationalities. For many, English is not their first language, but it is usually the shipboard language among the international crew. This and also the plurality of values, cultures, attitudes and experiences affect the nature of interpersonal relationships. Cultural differences may make it difficult for companies to understand the motivations and expectations of employees in an area. The wide ethnic diversity and the confined living environment increase the likelihood of crew misunderstanding and conflict.

Retention. A cruise ship is subject to high turnover as the workforce is constantly being rotated. In order to increase retention, HR needs to understand what motivates the crew, which can be a particular challenge because motivations vary: money, career possibilities, gaining experience, in addition to the lifestyle and chance to travel the world. Differences in culture also can influence attitudes toward authority, teamwork and working hours. It is imperative that HR understands what is most valued by these workers: is it compensation, prestige or perhaps autonomy at work? In many cases, HR will have to adapt incentives, benefits policies and retention strategies for workers who are not driven by just financial compensation. It is not enough simply to recruit capable staff — cruise lines need to make sure that their people are committed, productive and do not leave after a short period, incurring substantial turnover costs and wasting all previous training invested in them.

Training a Global Workforce. Training a global workforce is much more involved and expensive than training a team at home. Training programs must be reconstructed with sensitivity to cultural customs, effective metaphors and language, and the ability to be clearly communicated online or by a traveling training team. The high cost of training aboard a cruise ship is due to the broad range of training required. In addition to training for specific jobs and tasks, crews need to be trained on safety routines such as the crew station drill and on-board drills. There are business ethics courses and cross-cultural communication courses that can be extremely helpful in training and managing global workforces. Having a deep understanding of cultural norms and tailoring training to accommodate these customs can help to make training much more effective than attempting to translate and use existing training guides.

Time Tracking. A reliable and efficient means of recording the exact number of work and overtime hours for weekdays and holidays is obviously important to any organization. It’s an even steeper challenge for cruise lines — indeed, any maritime organization — as they need to stay in compliance with Maritime Labor Convention (MLC) regulations for work and rest hours. Fatigue is cited as a major contributing factor to many incidents in the maritime industry, making compliance with rest hours requirements critical. Not only must you and your ship staff be well rested each day, but you need to prove it to the authorities.

The HR Organization

A cruise ship is a highly hierarchical organization, which extends to the HR department, which may consist of up to four different positions: HR manager, training and development manager, crew/staff administrator and crew/staff administrative (welfare) assistant. Here are their respective roles and responsibilities:

HR manager oversees and manages the entire human resources division of the cruise ship with an emphasis on vital functions: training and development, performance management, conflict resolution, promotions, transfers, employee relations, employee turnover, berthing compliance, progressive discipline, time and attendance, compensation and benefits administration, policies, procedures and regulatory compliance.

Training and development manager conducts both new hired personnel orientation programs and recurrent onboard training to ensure that the highest quality operational and safety standards of the cruise line are achieved. That manager executes and performs train-the-trainer sessions with the ship’s safety officer, environmental officer, heads of various shipboard departments, supervisors and managers to constantly improve the effectiveness of their training methods and presentation skills.

Crew/staff administrator is responsible for the sign-on (embarkation) and sign-off (disembarkation) of the ship’s officers, staff and crew — and for storage, maintenance and monitoring of ship’s personnel documentation passports, contracts, visas, seaman’s books, pre-boarding medical examination results and any other documentation required.

Crew/staff administrative (welfare) assistant provides administrative support to the HR office, handles paper- work, emails, records, incoming phone calls and assists the crew/staff administrator in performing duties. The crew/staff administrative assistant schedules and coor- dinates various personnel activities, such as sports, parties, tours and special events.

Technology Solutions

As with any technology deployment or upgrade, the central question is this: How do we best allocate people, information and technology to produce a more efficient and effective HR organization? More specifically, how can technology foster better recruiting, selection, performance management, training, and the administration of compensation and benefits? Ultimately, how can it help HR achieve its main goal: Coordinating and motivating the crew to create a memorable customer experience. The following processes and enabling technologies align with general challenges as well as those described in the previous section:


Ship-shore coordination. While cruise ships are in many respects self-contained, they also must remain in sync with the main office on land. Improved coordination between an organization’s vessels and main office requires that personnel records, sailing details, embarkation/disembarkation dates and payroll details be entered onboard, then synced with the main database. To do this efficiently and in a timely manner, the ship’s HR systems need to be able to transmit this data automatically, via satellite, to shore-based personnel systems — and have the resilience to resume syncing in case there’s an interruption in satellite access. This enables maritime organizations to always maintain a single, completely up-to-date database on their global organization. Efficiently synchronizing data between ship and shore (main office) nearly eliminates the geographical distance between them, providing real-time information on vital processes for all relevant players, including recruiters, planners, agents and key onboard personnel.

User self-management. Adding an employee self-service portal to your HR systems allows your organization to move daily data entry tasks from office staff to the date source: the crewmembers themselves. This significantly reduces data-entry errors and the flow of emails, freeing up onshore and onboard office staff to spend more time on more productive tasks and responsibilities. Given the fluidity of roles and responsibilities aboard a cruise ship, a self-service HR portal is virtually a necessity, giving crewmembers easy access to critical services and data, such as pay slips, competence records and sailing history. This is where they can also get informa- tion on planned events, including sea service, training and flights. In addition, crewmembers should be able to upload specific information or documentation, such as travel expenses, directly through the portal, simplifying an otherwise tedious time-consuming process.


Talent acquisition and management. The wide range of onboard roles makes recruiting and management a challenge. One key is to have a comprehensive vessel register with all required technical and operational information on each vessel in the company’s fleet. This enables HR to select a crew based on workers’ experience with vessel types, engine types, radio types and so on. It is also critical to have a platform that centralizes the management of crew rotations and major crewing processes, such as visa applications, work permits and compliance with maritime requirements (e.g., offshore certificates and valid medical certificates).

Time and attendance. Above standard time tracking (e.g., automating overtime payments), a time-and-attendance module for a cruise ship must make sure that staff complies with regulations pertaining to work and rest hours that are strictly enforced and come with stiff fines if violated.

Training and staff development. The wide variety of roles and cultural diversity of the crew make ongoing training and staff development critical for smooth func- tioning of the ship at all levels. This makes it that much more imperative that the enabling technology addresses all the core issues: Are you keeping up to date with the competence of your employees? Do you know what qual- ifications they possess, such as education, training and certificates? Can you easily flag when important doc- uments are due to expire, and schedule staff training based on their availability? Do you have the tools to efficiently and reliably find qualified personnel for open positions? Can crewmembers easily schedule training?

Additionally, because of the rigorous safety procedures that must always be adhered to on board the ship, the platform must include training on safety routines such as the crew station drill and on-board drills.

HR: At the Heart of All Great Cruise Experiences

Cruise ship companies are keen to get high ratings on customer satisfaction because a high percentage of cruisers return after they sailed for the first time, then regularly spend their vacations on cruise ships again, providing that they had a good experience on their last cruise. The HR organization on board a cruise ship is cen- tral to this experience. Their decisions and the tools they use to facilitate them have a direct bearing on the cruise ship culture and the way staff at every level interacts with passengers.

In few other industries can it be said that HR is a major business driver and key contributor to the bottom line. When it comes to the issue of HR technology, it’s not just about streamlining processes and improving backend operations, it’s about supporting exceptional leadership and managing staff, which are the core goals of any organization, whether it’s at sea or on land.

Per Ove Kviteberg

Per Ove Kviteberg  is the director of sales and marketing at Adonis AS, a provider of HR and payroll solutions for the global maritime industry. Connect with him on LinkedIn.