The heroes of 26/11! The response by Taj employees is now a case study at Harvard

26/11, terrorist had launched series of simultaneous attack on various places at Mumbai. The prestigious ‘Taj’ hotel witnessed barbaric act of terrorism. They were two saviors in uniform that night, one in NSG commondo’s and others in Taj’s staff uniform.

The exemplary courage and dedication they showcased on that fateful night is now a Harvard business school(HBS) case study.

The multimedia case study ‘Terror at the Taj Bombay: Customer-Centric Leadership’ by HBS professor Rohit Deshpande documents “the bravery and resourcefulness shown by rank-and-file employees” during the attack. The study focusses on the staff’s selfless service for its customers and how they went beyond their call of duty to save lives.

The objective of the study is, “why did the Taj employees stay at their posts (during the attacks), jeopardising their safety in order to save hotel guests and how can that level of loyalty and dedication be replicated elsewhere”.

Let us know what caused Rohit Deshpande to conduct this case study.

For two nights and three days, the Taj was under siege, held by terrorist with automatic weapons who took some people hostage, killed few and set fire to the famous dome of the hotel.

The siege of the Taj quickly became an international story. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, who grew up in Mumbai recollect the horror of the attacks, he points to a silver lining: the behavior of the employees at the Taj.

Something extraordinary had happened at taj.

According to hotel managers, none of the Taj employees had fled the scene to protect themselves during the attack, They all stayed back to help the guests.

the kitchen employees had formed a human shield to assist guests who were being evacuated, and lost their lives as a result.

the telephone operators who, after being evacuated, chose to return to the hotel so they could call guests and tell them what to do.

Karambir Singh Kang, the general manager of the Taj, who worked to save people even after his wife and two sons, who lived on the sixth floor of the hotel, died in the fire set by the terrorists.

Often it is observed during a crisis, a single hero or small group of heroes who take action and risk their lives will emerge. But what happened at the Taj was much broader.

During the crisis, dozens of workers, waiters and busboys, and room cleaners who knew back exits and paths through the hotel, chose to stay in a building under siege until their customers were safe. They were the very model of ethical, selfless behavior.

What was the reason for such selfless behavior?

Rohit Deshpande was in Taj interviewing staffs, for some other case study. but when they spoke, the topic circles around the terrorist attack. It was then Rohit decided to interview and take up a broader study of staff’s behavior that night.

From  Recruitment To Reward

It perhaps has something to do with the kinds of people that they recruit to become employees at the Taj, and then the manner that they train them and reward them,” he says.

First, recruitment. the Taj avoids big cities and instead turns to small towns and semi-urban areas. There the Taj develops relationships with the local schools and hand-select people who have the qualifications they want. They don’t look for students who have the highest grades. They recruit for personal characteristics, most specifically, respect and empathy.

They avoid hiring managers for the hotel from the top business schools in India. They deliberately go to second-tier business schools, on the theory that the people there will be less motivated by money.

And this strategy, as Deshpande points out, is highly unusual in India. How often do we see institutions choosing candidates with empathy rather than high trades. It’s almost near to zero.

The Taj is owned by the Tata group, which for the past hundred years has been run by an extremely religious family that’s interested in social justice. The company typically channels about two-thirds of its profits into a charitable trust. and there is wonderful reward systems set up by the Taj  encourages kindness in staff.

If any guests say something or write something very complimentary about an employee, within 48 hours of recording of that compliment, there is some sort of reward on the way for the staff.

And in his study, Deshpande emphasizes  that it is this combination of selection and routinized rewards that explains what happened during those terrible three days when the Taj hotel was under siege.

The employees, were essentially performing the behaviors they were selected and trained to perform. In this case, extreme kindness to customers.

The staffs of Taj were those rare group of dedicated employees, the reception of the hotel was open in less than a month after the attacks.

They lost their loved ones, their colleagues, some lost their own lives, but when an employee has absolute love for his job and for the company he or she works in, these rare cases of extraordinary participation can be seen.

A rank holder may or may not fetch you glory, but an honest, empathetic employee will surely fetch glory. Kudos to Tata group and salutes to staffs of Taj.

Dr Sindhu Prashanth