Public Shame #3: When the music died

Chapter 6: Everything falls apart

As I have already described before, the permanent Youth Staff Managers, Matt Ducharme (AOM) and Laura Davidson (AAOM) were phenomenal seasoned leaders. Matt’s first fill-in manager, Tracey Sanders, was a little green and rough around the edges, but all-in-all a highly competent and well meaning manager. By contrast, Maita Pangilinan, was an atrocious manager. And this was actually surprising to me, given her time with the company and her time as a manager.

The only exception to Ms. Pangilinan’s management experience I can think of is that it was almost entirely limited to a single ship which did cruises in Asia. Each class of Royal Caribbean ship is its own unique build and design. The different classes may be manned differently, have different facilities, and therefore very different procedures. Furthermore, each individual ship can have its own unique culture and management style depending on the influence of the Master and the top staff who set the tone and write their own individual regulations for their ship.

And finally, ships also can have wildly different cultures as influenced by the part of the world where they sail. For example, the ship Ms. Pangilnan cam from had a crew that consisted almost entirely of Asians and in particular Chinese crew members. All of this is to simply say that cultures, management styles, and general procedures can vary wildly from one ship to the next and be exceedingly individualized on one particular ship.

In my experience with Ms. Pangilinan, once she came aboard the Independence of the Seas, while she may have been an exceptionally effective and competent leader on her regular vessel, she was a fish out of water aboard the Independence. Most troubling was that on several occasions I went to her for clarification on how a particular job was supposed to be performed or asking what the regulations or operating procedures were and she was unable to give me an answer. Even worse, in some cases, even after several weeks, she was unable to find an answer or even figure out where to point me to find an answer for myself.

Now, I want to make it clear that clarity about what we are supposed to be doing in our jobs is essential to team cohesion. Royal Caribbean’s Adventure Ocean program has a general problem with how staff members are trained in their jobs: I call it “learning by failing.” When I first came aboard the Independence, I was told to shadow other youth staff members, some who had only been on ships a few months themselves, and learn how to do my job from them. This often lead to not being told essential information about how to do the job or being told the wrong information as we were essentially the blind leading the blind.

For example, there are very specific regulations on how sign-ins and sign-out procedures are to be handled. However, every youth staff member seemed to have very different ideas about what those procedures were. I saw many of my fellow crew members get in trouble and receive POL’s for doing something they were never told they could not do or not doing something they were told they were supposed to do. Because of this, there was a general anxiety in the air about whether or not any one of us was going to make an honest mistake and do something wrong because we didn’t know how to do our jobs correctly.

This anxiety naturally resulted in some staff members ruthlessly throwing other staff members under the bus in order to avoid getting into trouble. For example, during one embarkation two Youth Staff members were tasked with passing out YEP (Youth Emergency Plan) bracelets to all children under the age of 12 coming aboard the ship. Near the end of their scheduled shift, one Youth Staff member (who had only been aboard the ship for two weeks) asked the other youth staff member (who was on her second or third contract) if she could go to her cabin to retrieve a sweater because she was freezing in the terminal.

The veteran youth staff member told her that there were only a few minutes left before the ship left port and that nearly all the passengers were aboard so she had no problem finishing the YEP duty on her own. She told her to go ahead and end her shift and not worry about coming back. When the veteran youth staff member was packing up the table, signage, and bracelets to bring back to Adventure Ocean, someone asked her where her partner was. Fearing she might be in trouble for letting her go, she said that her partner had “left to go to the bathroom and never returned.” This information traveled all the way up to the Cruise Director and the result was that new-hire Youth Staff member received a POL for “abandoning her post.”

Now, there were not specific regulations requiring two people to manage the YEP bracelet table. In fact, it is completely unnecessary near the end of embarkation once all but a handful of passengers are already aboard. If this veteran Youth Staff member simply said that she told the other girl she could go and that she would assume responsibility for breaking down their station no one would have gotten in trouble and there would have not been any issues. But, this particular Youth Staff was so concerned about protecting herself against possibly breaking a rule she didn’t know about, she shifted the blame to her colleague and completely threw her under the bus.

Now, when Matt was the Adventure Ocean Manager, despite the shortcomings of not having a formalized training system or staff not always being 100% confident in what the rules and procedures were, he did an exemplary job of training staff and communicating with us so as to keep that anxiety as a minimum. Each Youth Staff member had a good sense of how we were supposed to perform our duties, and out knowledge was pretty consistent from one person to the next.

During the time Maita was filling in for Matt, however, many Youth Staff members came and went as we cycled through our contracts. Now, individual Youth Staff members were beginning to have wildly different ideas about how we were supposed to do our jobs and disagreements frequently arose. This raised anxiety to an all time high and constant snitching and back-stabbing behavior became the norm rather than the exception. This kind of work environment might shed some light on some of Luis Lugo’s behavior as I previously described. It didn’t stop there, though.

One auxiliary duty which we were required to perform was monitoring the kiddie pools on the roof of the ship during days at sea. Youth Staff members rotated on hourly shifts by the pools where children were playing. This was not a “lifeguard” duty, but our presence there was simply to enforce the posted rules such as “no running,” “no climbing,” and “no babies with diapers in the pools.”  That last rule was the most frustrating one because despite the fact that we had a “baby pond” play area and despite the fact that parents would put their babies in waterproof diapers, we were not allowed to have any children with diapers in the water under any circumstances with no exceptions. Parents loved to argue with us about that easily misunderstood rule and many Youth Staff members struggled with defusing their anger. The “no diapers” rule was the one we had to enforce most often and certainly the one that was most discussed in team meetings.

One one particular cruise, a colleague of mine, Tom Huckle, and I came into sharp disagreement over how our duties were supposed to be performed while monitoring the kiddie pools. The way I was trained, we were supposed to spend the hour walking around and between the pool areas and monitor all the children present taking care to enforce all of the posted rules. Under Matt’s blessing and the encouragement of some of the veteran staff members who had trained me, I took this time to actually play a little with some of the kids present. Relationship building was great PR for getting kids to come participate in our daycare program who might have been reluctant to otherwise do so, and it was also a good way to build report with the children which helped minimize behavior problems. So, I approached my pool duties with extreme enthusiasm and was always moving around the area during my duty.

Tom, on the other hand, like many other Youth Staff, loathed this duty. His approach was to post himself away from the pools and in the shade where he could really only see the baby pond and enforce the “no diapers” rule. This particular approach, while incorrect, was becoming the norm among many Youth Staff. And there were never any supervisors to tell anyone otherwise. After all, most of what we knew about how to do that job was verbally passed down to us by whomever happened to be on duty the hour before we took over.

One on occasion, Tom, had come to relieve me of my duties and when he went to the place where he usually posted himself he didn’t see me, so he assumed I had simply not showed up for duty. Of course, at this time I was making my rounds, as I had been trained to do. If he simply walked closer to the pool area and looked around he would have easily seen me – I am 6’2″ and wearing a bright yellow shirt among a sea of children in bathing suits, but he didn’t. It wasn’t until about 10 or 15 minutes after I was supposed to have been relieved of duty that I noticed Tom off in the corner under the awning by the baby pond.

I approached Tom to hand over the mobile phone we carried on duty. It was then that he said he didn’t even know I was up there the whole time and he was frustrated when he didn’t see me. I said to him that if he had been making his rounds around the pools like we were supposed to he would have easily seen me. Again, seeing as the training structure of Adventure Ocean was designed so that it primarily consisted of experienced staff members sharing their knowledge with less experienced staff members, I told Tom that part of our job on pool duty was to make rounds and make sure no children were running, diving, or climbing. Tom took very strong exception to this and seemed downright offended that I would presume to tell him how to do his job. He told me that the only thing we were supposed to do was make sure there were no babies with diapers in the baby pond.

I wasn’t really interested in arguing, and I figured the best course of action would be to seek clarification from my manager at a later time. So, I approached Maita later that day and asked her, “What are we supposed to be doing while we are on pool duty and where are we supposed to be stationed?” She looked at me with a blank stare. I explained to her what I was talking about – the shifts we worked by the pools during sea days and eventually once she realized what I was asking she simply told me that she didn’t know and that I probably knew better. I told her that I had been trained to do it a certain way, but that many of the staff members had very different ideas about what we were supposed to do be doing and this was causing some confusion and conflicts so I was simply seeking some clarity. Maita told me she would get back to me with an answer and we simply left it at that.

A week went by and Maita had still not given me an answer. In fact, during that week, more disagreements and arguments among other staff members had broken out about how we were supposed to perform this simple duty. So, I went back to Maita and asked her and explained the situation and asked her if she had any information that she could tell the staff to set things straight. She told me she did not and suggested a place on the intranet where I could look up the information myself. I tried to look up the information, but the source she sent me to was useless and in fact, it did not have any information relating to Adventure Ocean or the deck pools at all. I went to the assistant manager, Kara, but she was brand new to the job and also did not have any idea where I could find the answer and deferred to Maita. A third time, I approached Maita, explained that the place she sent me before didn’t have any information and asked her if she wouldn’t mind going through our intranet together and teach me how to find the answers I was looking for on what our written procedures were. She told me she didn’t have an answer for me and she would continue to look into it.

By now, it was two cruises after my initial conversation with Maita about this. That means we had had two team meetings and the issue still had not been brought up or resolved. And there was increasing squabbling among the Youth Staff over this simple, yet apparently stressful and unwanted duty. Finally, I want to the cruise director and told him what was going on and explained that I had approached Maita about it weeks prior and despite going back to her several times she was not able to provide the staff with an answer to this question. He told me he was extremely concerned that Maita was not able to provide a timely answer and that she should have given me an answer within 48 hours, so he would look into it. Two days later, in a team meeting, Maita handed out a printout that listed the specific duties and expectations of Youth Staff members on pool duty. It was an old file that had clearly been around on the AOM’s computer the whole time and Maita simply did not know where to find it previously or had not bothered to look.

As it turned out, my idea of what were supposed to be doing was correct. We were not supposed to be standing in the shade, we were supposed to be making rounds among the pools, and we were supposed to be enforcing all of the posted rules, not just the “no diapers” rule. This resulted in some grumbling among the staff members who didn’t like the pool duty to begin with and were accustomed to doing it the “easy” way such as how Tom had been doing it. But in the end, everyone ended up on the same page. There was no disagreement or misunderstanding, and no one got hurt or in trouble.

This was not always the result of misunderstandings, however, and this was certainly not an isolated incident. At other times, I had asked Maita for direction on certain duties I was asked to perform that I wasn’t familiar with or procedures I became confused about because I was being told different stories by different staff members. Nearly every time I went to her for clarification, Maita’s response was not just “I don’t know the answer,” she also did not know where to find the answer and brushed it aside. And many of these things I was asking her about were corporate level Royal Caribbean directives and standards. These things were clearly spelled out and handed down to managers and the information existed somewhere – somewhere often that only managers had access to but regular staff members did not. Thankfully, Ms. Davidson returned from her vacation shortly and was able to sort most of these things out.

These were not the most egregious example of Maita’s incompetence as a manager, however. And these were not the worst examples of what could go wrong in Adventure Ocean when staff members were not confident about how to do their jobs.

One night, two of my Youth Staff colleagues were working an after-hours shift together and there were approximately 12 children in the room sometime between 11 p.m. and midnight. Typically in this situation, the individuated scheduled the latest was given the authority to dismiss the second staff member once the child to staff ratio was well within the regulations of 25:1 and that staff member felt comfortable managing the room by themselves.

This particular night, the late night staff member was a brand new hire who had only been on the job for a few weeks and the secondary member was Isobel Ingram, also a new hire in her first contract, but with at least several months of experience on the job. That night, just like any other night, Isobel asked Lile if she could go home for the night now that there were only 12 children in the room. Lile told her to go home and she was the only staff member on duty for the rest of the night. I have seen this exact scenario play out exactly like this hundreds of times often with more children in the room but never more than the 25:1 ratio.

Unlike other nights, however, when a parent came to pick up their child around midnight, they felt that there were “too many” children in the room for just one staff member so they complained to guest services that Adventure Ocean was understaffed and the individual in charge had demonstrated an incapability to control the room and keep the children safe. Maita was made aware of this problem after the fact, so she later called Lile into her office to ask her what had happened. Lile, fearing the she had done something terribly wrong and afraid that she might get fired, told Ms. Pangilinan that Isobel had asked for permission to leave and she had granted it to her even though she didn’t actually feel comfortable with 12 children by herself. She said that she felt pressured to say “yes” because if she didn’t it would look like she was not good at her job.

When Isobel was asked about this she said that she had Lile if it was time to go and Lile had told her to go home. She said that she would never had left if she felt Lile was not comfortable or able to handle herself. And the funny thing is that no children were hurt. No children were out of control. The only thing that had happened is a parent had felt that 12 children in the room was too many for one staff member and had complained to guest services. Here is how Maita handled that situation: She gave Isobel a POL for believing Ms. Panzova and leaving when she was told to leave and she gave Lile a POL for lying to Isobel and telling her she felt comfortable with her leaving.

Of course, this makes absolutely no sense. Isobel followed standard operating procedures and no rules were broken and no children were harmed. The only person at fault, if there was a fault to call out, was Lile for telling Isobel to leave when she didn’t feel capable of supervising 12 kids on her own. I am not even sure that this was true, but it made sense for Lile to make this excuse in light of the accusation made against her by the complaining parent.

Granted, POL’s aren’t a huge deal, but they are a form of admonishment for doing something wrong. In this case, Isobel had done nothing wrong, but Maita gave her a POL anyway? Why? I have no idea. Isobel has no idea. No one has any idea. It was just bad management through and through. And the result of this and other similar situations (which are to numerous to fully list here) was that the Adventure Ocean staff was in complete and utter chaos. No one really was sure about how to do their job anymore. Many of us were afraid that we were going to get in trouble even if we did do our job right. And a small contingent of Youth Staff were so paranoid about getting in trouble or getting sold out by someone else on the staff that they very actively engaged in pre-emptive back-stabbing behaviors themselves. It was every man for himself, cloak and dagger, and we were no longer a functioning team. Ultimately, our performance dropped along with our morale, and our department’s sinking ratings and negative comments from our guests reflected this.

The final straw was the schedule. When Matt and Laura were in charge, Laura handled the scheduling and took great care to make sure that everyone received an equal amount of time off – especially time off in ports which was the most important time off. Time off while we were at sea wasn’t much of a time off at all, but time off in port was what really mattered as you could get away from the ship (where you were mainly confined to crew areas) and go do something fun with your friends on land and really relax and recharge your battery.

When Maita took over as AOM she delegated scheduling to Kara who really didn’t have any experience making schedules. As a result, some staff members ended up with their days off falling mainly on port days – cruise after cruise after cruise, and other staff members received almost no port days off cruise after cruise after cruise. One of my colleagues, I observed, received zero port days off for two cruises in a row while two of my colleagues received seven. This was one of our main ways to relieve stress, going ashore, so you can imagine that when half of the staff suddenly was receiving demonstrably less time off in port than the other half of the staff, this lead to even more jealousy, fighting, and backbiting. If the team was having troubles before, once the effects of these horrible schedules started to kick in, that kind of sealed the deal.

This is what Maita did to what was once a very effective and functioning team that consistently had received the highest ratings of any department on the ship under Matt’s leadership. By the time Matt came back from his honeymoon, Adventure Ocean was a shambles. He really had his work cut out for him to put it all back together.

Shortly after Matt had come back on board the ship, an incident occurred between myself and another staff member, Jason Altschwager. This was in regards to how we were sanitizing the rooms, which I cannot emphasize enough was a very big deal on the Independence. You may have heard about the norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships. In January, the Explorer of the Seas had to end a cruise early after 700 crew and passengers became sick. During the winter Caribbean season it is actually rare to not have at least a handful of people bring some kind of flu onto a cruise with them, but if you get enough cases in a single cruise we take extra precautions under directives called OPP’s (outbreak protection plans), even going as far as to shut down buffet service and having the entire crew of the ship pull shifts in the dining rooms serving guests.

Part of our normal preventative measures are to clean every surface in Adventure Ocean with a chemical called Oxiver, and there is a very specific method for doing this in order to effectively kill germs while not leaving behind chemical residue. Matt was very explicit in meeting after meeting about how we were supposed to clean, and if anyone was caught not doing it the right way they would be in danger of getting written up. The way we were taught was to soak a rag with the chemical and thoroughly wipe down every surface making sure every square millimeter was touched.

While cleaning the room, one afternoon, I observed Jason walking around just spraying the bottle of Oxiver casually over counter tops and game consoles. This was certainly a fast way to get the job done, but it didn’t actually get the job done at all and didn’t eradicate any possible norovirus that could be present. To make matters worse, while Maita didn’t show any concern for following proper procedures, much less knowing them, our regular manager, Matt, was very serious about cleaning procedures and he had just signed back onto the ship earlier that week. I knew that if he caught Jason doing what he was doing he would write him up without even a warning. And I knew that Jason didn’t know this because he had just signed onto the ship a few weeks prior while Matt was still gone.

So, I said to Jason, “I am not really sure if that is how Matt wants us to be cleaning. I think he wants us to soak the rags.”

Jason responded, “This is how I have always done it. I know what I’m doing. It doesn’t really matter, it’s just a little thing.”

At this point, especially after the Luis Lugo affair, I was very paranoid about any confrontation, so I simply said, “I’m sorry, I must be confused. You’re probably right. I guess I’ll just have to ask Matt to clarify for me.”

However, just like Luis, Jason decided he wasn’t going to let this one go. He stopped cleaning and walked up to me and said, in a very mean tone I might add, “You know what? You are a terrible person. Who do you think you are bossing me around? You are so bossy!” I tried to deflect and said, “I’m sorry. I am not trying to be bossy, I just want to make sure I am doing things the right way.”

No matter where I went in the room as I continued cleaning, Jason continued to berate me about what a bad person I was, how bossy I was, and how I thought I was better than everyone else. Later that day, I had a conversation with Matt and the fill-in cruise director, Mike Hunnerup, about what happened and asked what I should have done differently in that situation. They told me that the reason people reacted negatively at the mere suggestion that they were doing their job wrong was because they already knew they were doing it wrong, they were intentionally doing it wrong and they wanted to get away with it. They felt threatened by someone who seemed like they cared about doing things right and were fearful that this person would report them or get them in trouble. Their recommendation to me? Don’t say anything to anyone ever. Just go behind people’s backs and report them.

Of course, this does not entirely fit with the kind of professional working environment I have come to appreciate over the years. The general rule has been to deal with problems at the lowest level possible, to look out for your colleagues and have their backs – don’t go behind people’s backs to get people and trouble – and if someone is mistakenly doing something wrong that will inevitably get them in trouble it is better that they hear it from you when there are no consequences than from a boss when there are serious consequences.

I said, “It sounds to me like I work with a bunch of people who don’t want to do their job, but are constantly living in fear of their coworkers stabbing them in the back, so if a disagreement ever arises between two individuals it automatically becomes a war, kill or be killed, and everyone is working in fear and paranoia,” I continued, “the only way for me to survive in this system is to either violate my integrity and stop caring about doing things the right way or to become part of the problem and go behind everyone’s back indiscriminately to try and get them in trouble. That sounds like a very toxic work environment, and I don’t think it has to be like that and I don’t think Royal Caribbean wants it to be like that.”

Mike simply told me that in his experience, this was the kind of work environment I would find anywhere I went. I really don’t want to believe this is true, but maybe he has a point. Maybe positive working environments with well functioning teams are the exception and not the rule.

It was in this kind of environment that I would ultimately receive my next two written warnings – within 24 hours of each other, no less, and eventually be dismissed from my job, a casualty of a dysfunctional staff and a few scheming, very ill-intentioned individuals.