HR Practices make Heros

Economic Times 24/11/2011

HR Practices Converted Ordinary People into Heroes

26/11 MUMBAI ATTACK Leadership from below explains the valour of Taj employees who died to keep guests alive during the terrorist attack on the property


In the weeks that followed 26/11 — the day on which rampaging terrorists killed some 150 people at 10 locations in South Mumbai, including 11 employees of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel — Ratan Tata made visits to some of the bereaved families. The chief of the Tata group, which owns the Taj via group company Indian Hotels, met a woman who pointed to the garlanded figure of her late husband and said: “My children never realised their father was a hero.” It took Tata by surprise, as he expected to encounter anger and sorrow.

The above anecdote is narrated by Rohit Deshpande, professor at Harvard Business School (HBS), who was interviewing Tata for a five-part video case study on crisis management at the Taj during 26/11. Deshpande started to teach the course at Harvard from October 2010. His students, especially non-Indians, were transfixed by the topic and were incredulous why employees were willing to give up their lives when they had the option to flee.

The student reaction prodded Deshpande, along with Anjali Raina, executive director at HBS India Research Centre in Mumbai to delve deeper into the HR practices of the organisation. The uncommon valour of those who worked at the Taj convinced the duo to research the human resource (HR) practices of the organisation. After all, here was an extremely rare case of employees placing the safety of guests over their own well-being; and in the process some of them sacrificed their lives.

“We wondered whether the HR best practices made them do this and decided to dig deeper into the HR processes,” said Deshpande, while Raina added that: “It was intriguing to unpack the Taj approach to HR and speculate on the linkages between the hotel’s HR policies and practices and the customer service experience.”

The research of Deshpande and Raina spanned more than a year. They began by asking for manuals, wondering if there was training given to these employees for an incident like this one. There was none. An intrigued Deshpande started to research the HR practices of the company and found three pillars of practices that explained the courage and actions of employees: A recruitment system that hires for character and not for grades; training programmes that not just mentor employees but also empower them to take decisions; and a reward programme that recognises employees on a real-time basis. “I teach both MBA and executive programmes. In my experience, these practices have been unique,” Deshpande said. Just one aspect— that of recruiting from small towns and recruiting for attitude rather than grades — was unheard of, he added.

This research is interspersed with tales of employee heroism — a 20-something banquet manager helping guests escape; telephone operators staying at their posts and alerting guests to stay indoors; and staff forming a human shield to protect guests at the time of evacuation.

One executive chef at the hotel told the researchers that other groups have tried to hire him, but he refused to go. Reason: There is a connection with the guests. Generations have come to the Sea Lounge for matchmaking and weddings are celebrated in the Crystal Room; and waiters have been serving people for generations, the researchers were told. “(At a time when) we are hearing so many stories of human frailty, mismanagement, moral turpitude, the Taj research is about ordinary people who became heroes. It’s about leadership from everywhere, especially leadership from below,” said Deshpande.

The research will be published in HBR’s December 2011 issue. The context for the students and organisations is to learn about HR practices that have been put together on unique criteria, said Deshpande. The culture of employee-empowerment has been ingrained in the Taj workforce for some time now. For instance, the researchers found similar displays of gallantry at the at the Taj properties in Maldives at the time of tsunami in December 2004. “I realised that just like the character of a human being is the sum of choices made over the years, the culture of an organisation is the sum of values, policies and practices consciously fostered over the years,” said Raina.

…And Its Heroic Practice on 26/11

A 20-something banquet manager helped guests escape

Telephone operators stayed at their posts and alerted guests to stay indoors

Staff forming a human shield to protect guests at the time of evacuation

11 employees perished saving lives