Taj Hotel Staff Were Mumbai's Unlikely Heroes

Dec 23, 2011
Originally published on December 23, 2011 8:18 pm

On Nov. 26, 2008, terrorists simultaneously attacked about a dozen locations in Mumbai, India, including one of the most iconic buildings in the city, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.

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

The siege of the Taj quickly became an international story. Lots of people covered it, including CNN's Fareed Zakaria, who grew up in Mumbai. In a report that aired the day after the attacks, Zakaria spoke eloquently about the horror of what had happened in Mumbai, and then pointed to a silver lining: the behavior of the employees at the Taj.

Apparently, something extraordinary had happened during the siege. According to hotel managers, none of the Taj employees had fled the scene to protect themselves during the attack: They all stayed at the hotel to help the guests.

"I was told many stories of Taj hotel employees who made sure that every guest they could find was safely ferreted out of the hotel, at grave risk to their own lives," Zakaria said on his program.

There was the story of the kitchen employees who formed a human shield to assist guests who were evacuating, and lost their lives as a result. Of the telephone operators who, after being evacuated, chose to return to the hotel so they could call guests and tell them what to do. Of 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 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 could possibly explain it?

Getting To The Bottom Of It

Earlier this month, a study in the Harvard Business Review proposed an answer to that question.

The study was done by Rohit Deshpande, a Harvard business professor who researches both business ethics and global branding.

About nine months after the attacks on the Taj, Deshpande was in India interviewing senior management of the hotel on a completely different topic, but found that the people he was talking to kept steering the conversation back to the terrorist attacks.

"What was interesting about all those interviews with senior management was that they could not explain the behavior of their own employees," he told me. "They simply couldn't explain it."

And so Deshpande decided to do his own investigation of the company to see if he might be able to untangle the cause.

Last year, Deshpande flew to India to review the company's HR policies and also do interviews with the hotel staff, everyone from managers to kitchen workers.

What he published in the Harvard Business Review is his case study of the company.

Now, because this is a case study and not a double-blind research study, it's impossible to draw definitive conclusions. But this is what Deshpande thinks:

"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.

From A To Z — Recruitment To Reward

First, recruitment. In their search to find maids and bellhops, the Taj avoids big cities and instead turns to small towns and semi-urban areas. There the Taj develops relationships with local schools, asking the leaders of those schools to hand-select people who have the qualifications they want.

"They don't look for students who have the highest grades. They're actually recruiting for personal characteristics," Deshpande says, "most specifically, respect and empathy."

Taj managers explained to Deshpande that they recruited for traits like empathy because that kind of underlying value is hard to teach. This, he says, is also why recruiters 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.

"Let me put this into a little cultural context for you," he says.

"India is a country where people are almost obsessed about grades. In order to get ahead, you have to have really high grades. But here is an organization that is doing just the opposite — they're recruiting not for grades, they're recruiting for character."

Part of this focus on character is ideological, he says.

The Taj is owned by a corporation called 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.

But Deshpande says there are also practical reasons for this focus on character. The Taj hotel has made its name on customer service, and they are near maniacal about it, treating it almost like a science.

For example, managers have mapped the number of interactions that happen between customers and hotel employees in a typical 24-hour stay. There are on average 42, often unsupervised, interactions between employees and guests.

Each of these interactions is viewed by the company as an opportunity for employees to delight their customers with their kindness. So everything -- everything — about the training and rewards systems set up by the Taj is designed to encourage kindness.

Deshpande gives one example. "If guests say something or write something very complimentary about an employee, within 48 hours of [the] recording of that compliment, there is some sort of reward that is made."

Rewards range from gifts to job promotions.

This system — of immediately rewarding desired behavior — will likely sound familiar to people interested in psychology.

It's by-the-book conditioning, the same kind of conditioning used by B.F. Skinner to train his pigeons.

And in his study, Deshpande argues 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, he argues, were essentially performing the behaviors they were selected and trained to perform. In this case, extreme kindness to customers.

Enabling Ethics

And for Deshpande, all of this has much larger implications: For him, what happened at the Taj is proof positive that organizations can create ethical behavior.

"I am absolutely convinced that corporations can enable ethical behavior, and I think what happened at the Taj on [Nov. 26, 2008] is a great example," he says.

But Tom Donaldson, professor of business ethics at the Wharton School, says producing ethics isn't so simple.

"If ethics could be engineered by the organization infallibly, we wouldn't be hearing about so many scandals in church organizations," he says.

It's not that rewards don't matter, Donaldson argues. They profoundly influence behavior, he says. But Donaldson wonders if all the training and conditioning done by the Taj can really be said to have produced truly ethical behavior. What would happen, he wonders, if those employees had confronted a different kind of ethical dilemma, one presented by the customers they'd been conditioned to serve?

"I'd like to know what a Taj employee would do," he says, "for example, if one of the guests ended up striking a homeless person, or one of the guests attempted to sexually assault a hotel worker."

It's hard to condition real ethics, he says.

But for Deshpande, in the example of the Taj and the incredible sacrifices of the employees who work there, there is still a clear, and very compelling, lesson.

"Corporate design is absolutely critical," Deshpande says. "For good, and for evil."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Lynn Neary.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

On November 26th, 2008, in Mumbai, India, terrorists launched coordinated attacks on about a dozen locations. More than 160 people died. But in the midst of the chaos lives were saved as well.

NPR's Alix Spiegel has this story about what happened at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and about research on what it might teach us about ethical behavior.

ALIX SPIEGEL: It was a Wednesday, around 9:30 at night. That's when the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai was attacked. Ten terrorists carrying automatic weapons entered and started shooting.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWS CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Unbelievable what is happening right in front of my eyes here...

SPIEGEL: This tape, from an Indian news reporter standing in front of the hotel, was actually collected on the second day of the three-day siege of the Taj, right after the iconic domes of the hotel were set on fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWS CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: One of the most beautiful structure that represents not just the city of Mumbai, the spirit of Mumbai that's going up in smoke even as we speak, reporting live just hundred meters from where this explosion is happening...

SPIEGEL: Now, the siege of the Taj quickly became an international story. Lots of people covered it.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWS CLIP)

FAREED ZAKARIA: This is GPS, the Global Public Square. I'm Fareed Zakaria.

SPIEGEL: CNN's Fareed Zakaria grew up in Mumbai. And during this report after the attacks, he spoke eloquently about the horror of what had happened. Then he pointed to a silver lining: the behavior of the employees at the Taj Hotel.

ZAKARIA: I was told many stories of Taj Hotel employees who made sure that every guest they could find was safely ferreted out of the hotel, at grave risk to their own lives.

SPIEGEL: None of the Taj employees fled the scene to protect themselves during the attack, according to hotel managers. They all stayed at the hotel to help the guests.

There was a story of the kitchen employees who formed a human shield to assist guests as they were evacuating and died as a result. There was the story of the telephone operators who, after being evacuated, chose to return so they could call guests and tell them what to do.

Then there was the story of Karambir Singh Kang, the general manager of the Taj, who worked to save people even as his wife and two sons, who lived on the sixth floor of the hotel, died in the fires set by the terrorists.

These stories of heroism inspired many people in India. And on the Internet, YouTube tributes to Taj employees set to music started popping up.

(SOUNDBITE OF A YOUTUBE VIDEO)

SPIEGEL: In this YouTube tribute, photographs of the Taj employees who lost their lives while helping guests fade in and out between testimonials from guests who were saved.

(SOUNDBITE OF A YOUTUBE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: That staff was very, very quick and very, very efficient. They called us all up, no panic.

SPIEGEL: Now, often during a crisis, a single hero or a small group of heroes who take action and risk their lives will emerge. But how do you explain this behavior at the Taj, where hundreds of workers - who knew how to escape through back exists - chose to stay in a building under siege and help guests?

PROFESSOR ROHIT DESHPANDE: It's very hard to understand. It's very hard to explain what was going on.

SPIEGEL: This is a Harvard business professor named Rohit Deshpande, who studies both business ethics and global branding. Last year, Deshpande decided to investigate what happened at the Taj, by looking at the way the company goes about selecting and training employees. This month, he published this case study in the Harvard Business Review.

Now, this is a case study - not a double-blind research study or anything. So it's impossible to draw definitive conclusions. But this is what Deshpande thinks.

DESHPANDE: It perhaps has something to do with the kinds of people that they recruit to become employees at the Taj, and then the manner in which they train them and they reward them.

SPIEGEL: Let's begin with recruitment. In their search to find maids and bellhops, the Taj avoids big cities and instead turns to small towns. There, the Taj develops relationships with local schools, asking the leaders of those schools to hand-select people who have the qualifications that they want.

DESHPANDE: They don't look for students who have the highest grades. They're actually recruiting for personal characteristics; most specifically, empathy.

SPIEGEL: Taj managers say they recruit for traits like empathy because that kind of value is hard to teach. This is also why recruiters 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 - which, as Deshpande points out, in India is a highly unusual strategy.

DESHPANDE: Let me put this into a little cultural context for you. India is a country where people are almost obsessed about grades. In order to get ahead, you have to have really high grades. Here is an organization that is doing just the opposite - they're recruiting not for grades, they're recruiting for character.

SPIEGEL: Now part of this focus on character is ideological. The Taj is owned by a corporation called the Tata Group, which, for the last 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.

But Deshpande says there's also a practical reason for this focus on character. The Taj Hotel has made its name on customer service - they are near-maniacal about it. And they have found...

DESHPANDE: They have found that from the time that a guest checks into a hotel to the time that they leave that hotel, there are 42 interactions with employees.

SPIEGEL: Now each of these interactions are viewed by the company as an opportunity for employees to delight their customers with their kindness. So everything - everything - about the training and rewards system set up by the Taj is designed to encourage kindness. For example...

DESHPANDE: If 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 that is made.

SPIEGEL: Rewards from gifts to job promotions. Now, this system of immediately rewarding desired behavior might sound familiar to people interested in psychology. It's by-the-book conditioning, the same kind you hear about in this documentary about B.F. Skinner and the pigeons he trained.

(SOUNDBITE OF A DOCUMENTARY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Can pigeons read? This one gives every indication...

SPIEGEL: Take a desired behavior, extreme kindness. Reinforce it with immediate rewards, promotions and gifts. Repeat.

(SOUNDBITE OF A DOCUMENTARY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: He's learned his different response to each sign by being rewarded with food. Its behavior is shaped by controlling its environment.

SPIEGEL: In his article, Deshpande argues 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, he argues, were essentially performing the behaviors that they were selected and trained to perform. In this case, extreme kindness to customers. And for Deshpande, this is proof that organizations can create ethical behavior.

DESHPANDE: I am absolutely convinced that corporations can enable ethical behavior, and I think what happened at the Taj on 26/11 of 2008 is a great example.

SPIEGEL: But Tom Donaldson, professor of business ethics at the Wharton School, says it's not so simple.

PROFESSOR TOM DONALDSON: If ethics could be engineered by the organization infallibly, we wouldn't be hearing about so many scandals in church organizations.

SPIEGEL: It's not that rewards don't matter, Donaldson says; they profoundly influence behavior. But Donaldson wonders if all the training and conditioning done by the Taj can really be said to produce ethical behavior. What would happen, he wonders, if those employees had confronted a different kind of ethical dilemma, one presented by the customers that they've been conditioned to serve?

DONALDSON: I'd like to know what a Taj employee would do, for example, if one of the guests ended up striking a homeless person, or one of the guests attempted to sexually assault another hotel worker.

SPIEGEL: It's hard to engineer real ethics, Donaldson says. But for Deshpande, in the example of the Taj and the incredible sacrifice of the employees that work there, there is still a clear and very compelling lesson.

DESHPANDE: Corporate design is absolutely critical - for good or for evil.

SPIEGEL: Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.