Focus on our people in 2021

2020 threw more challenges at us in our professional and personal lives than we could ever have imagined and no doubt there are more to come in 2021. With vaccines for Covid-19 in production, we have to hope that we are on the (albeit it bumpy) road to recovery.

One undeniably positive outcome from Covid-19 has been an increase in empathy, community and collaboration, again spanning professional and personal areas. For reasons I have never understood, the shipping and maritime industry has, for the most part, historically shied away from the far reaching benefits of high calibre human resource management and our employees have not had the focus they deserve, at sea or ashore. As a result, the human resource side of the maritime and shipping sector has been long overdue a shake-up but progress to drag it into anything resembling the 2000s has been hard work. 2020 was a landmark year for changes that are without doubt here to stay, these having been influenced by Covid-19 but also Black Lives Matter, the previous movement of Me Too and a growing realisation that our people are our biggest asset and need looking after. Not only that but if we wish to attract the best future talent, and it is widely recognised that as an industry we have a challenge to overcome as an attractive option, we need to modernise and rapidly.

At the start of the Covid era but before mandatory work from home was enforced, the annual Maritime Employee Survey 2020 (conducted by Halcyon Recruitment and Coracle Online among c. 1400 shore based maritime employees) showed startlingly that 55% of employees were actively looking for a new job and a further 39% were open to offers, indicating low employee engagement and also a lack of potential development opportunities. Within the same survey, working from home and flexible working hours ranked highest among the benefits respondents did not have but would like to have.

Truly diverse and inclusive organisations are proven to be more commercially successful and more innovative

Working from home subsequently became an overnight requirement across the globe and an option that employers need to keep on the table for part of the working week as we move forward. Even those organisations who were most opposed to this have had to address their stance in order to retain staff as we look ahead. One tanker owner has taken the seemingly radical step of allowing their employees to work from home up to 40% of the time on a permanent basis having seen no negative impact on productivity during Covid-19 mandatory home working.

Looking into the crystal ball for 2021, I would anticipate ongoing reviews of working policies with these extending also into flexible working hours, part time working options, improved maternity and paternity packages and an increase in enhanced return to work programmes.

Alongside this, the pressure on organisations for greater diversity and inclusion practices will only increase. ESG reporting, location specific requirements on gender / ethnicity reporting and major global organisations seeking reassurance of working practices are driving this at a rapid pace. Gender demographics and pay gap reporting are mandatory requirements for many already and in December 2020, a UK government report was released showing strong support for large firms to disclose ethnicity pay gaps. This is leading to complete reviews of recruitment practices and a move towards greater accountability for management and leaders when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

As Co-Founder of the Diversity Study Group and part of the Global Maritime Forum’s diversity and inclusion working group, it is evident this topic is gaining more momentum and that companies with the shipping and maritime sector will have to take action if they haven’t started yet. A number of leading entities are already looking to see how they can give preference to working with suppliers with progressive diversity and inclusion programmes in place and where one goes, we know that others will follow. The human factor element in business decision making as we move forward is not to be under-estimated.

Statistically as well, it makes good business sense. Truly diverse and inclusive organisations are proven to be more commercially successful and more innovative. The generations coming into the workplace are also looking to work in inclusive cultures with a diverse workforce, 77% of Generation Z indicated that these factors will affect their decision making when considering a new job.

Statistics from the Diversity Study Group acknowledge that change is necessary but, most importantly, that it is already in the pipeline for those organisations who are focusing on this. With c. 17% of Director level and Head of Department roles held by females, gender diversity is firmly on the agenda and it is encouraging to see that 52% of junior / trainee roles are occupied by females. Whilst this indicates that amended hiring and retention strategies are beginning to work for entry level roles, more work is being done on retention further into career progression with some great initiatives underway to support this. Age, ethnic group, nationality, remuneration and inclusion are also key areas of focus and, given the global nature of the data, cultural and regional matters are also being reviewed.

Critically the shipping and maritime industry is willing to work collaboratively when it comes to improving diversity and inclusion and to be increasingly transparent with their data. The sharing of best practice methodology and case studies alongside data benchmarking means that the industry can learn from each other as well as from other sectors which are more advanced. The results are a quicker transition to get up and running and the benefit of less pitfalls through learning from the challenges other organisations and industries have already faced.

I’m sure I’m not alone in being delighted to see the back of 2020. I am optimistic for 2021 and for the focus that is, finally, on our people ashore and at sea. The momentum needs to continue to build, we are far from where we need to be but the signs are positive.

Heidi Heseltine

Heidi Heseltine is the CEO of Halcyon Recruitment and co-founder of the Diversity Study Group. Her past career saw her work for shipowners, brokers as well as Levelseas.


  1. It is not clear to me how “feminism” will avoid the sacrifices that ordinary people will suffer in 2021: Total plunder of the economy, collapse of public services, death … If feminism fixes this, it would be wonderful!

  2. ‘A growing realisation that our people are our biggest asset’. Where has she been? This line has been appearing in annual reports for at least the last forty years and is so over-used as to have been reduced to a very tired cliche. Not the only one here, of course. Poor proofreading as well – did nobody notice that probably more than 17% of directors are male?
    Sorry to be bitchy, but I am really upset that, apart from token mentions near the beginning and the end, the article totally ignores the people who really matter – the men and women at sea.

    1. I completely agree with you that seafarers are those in most urgent need of support but there are others much better qualified than I am to provide opinion and commentary on that – the focus of this article is on the shore based community. In terms of my background, I have worked in the shipping industry 30 years, within commercial and operational capacities initially followed by 18 years within the human resource and recruiting side of the industry, as well as diversity and inclusion within shipping and maritime since 2018. The cliches are unfortunately true and lip service has long been given to people being our biggest asset but with little tangible action, particularly when looking at this in comparison with other industries / sectors. This spans a host of areas including training, development, working practices, hiring processes, working cultures and benefits to name a few but thankfully the data is showing that there is positive change on an increasingly large scale.

  3. Diversity of all forms is fine. Treating employees like trusted partners is even more powerful. Our research with Harvard Business School shows that companies that do so roughly double their profit growth versus their peers. Yes, I did say double. Is it so hard to believe? Look at Southwest Airlines, Canlis Restaurant or Adams Beasley Remodeling, and many more. All have trusted partners and all radically outperform their competitors, including in a pandemic. If you would like to learn more about the HBS benchmarking research, just contact our research associate, Iuliana Mogosanu at . These Forbes and Harvard Business Review articles provide more background:

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