Calgary Herald

Harvard studies Mumbai hotel heroics


Staff at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace gave a new meaning to customer service when they saved hotel guests during a 2008 gun battle — and now Harvard Business School wants to know whether other companies could learn.

The luxury hotel was the scene of a pitched fight between Islamist gunmen and Indian soldiers on November 26, 2008, trapping guests and staff.

Yet staff stayed in the burning building and did everything to shepherd out guests. A total of 31 people died there, including 12 employees.

“Underlying the case is a central conundrum: Why did the Taj employees stay at their posts, jeopardizi­ng their safety in order to save hotel guests?” asks a new study, “Terror at the Taj: Customer-Centric Leadership,” released this week.

“And is this level of loyalty and dedication something that can be replicated and scaled elsewhere?”

The study by Harvard Business School professor Rohit Desh pan de explores workplace culture in India.

Compared to the West, employers have a much more “paternalis­tic” relationsh­ip with their employees, while length of service is recognized and honoured by top management, the study says.

However, “not even the senior managers could explain the behaviour of these employees,” Deshpande told the business school’s website Working Knowledge.

“In the interview, the vice-chairman of the company says that they knew all the back exits: the natural human instinct would be to flee. These are people who instinctiv­ely did the right thing. And in the process, some of them, unfortunat­ely, gave their lives to save guests.”

The study — which has not yet been made public in full — found a “unique” employee culture at Tata Sons, the Taj’s parent company, including an “exacting process for selecting, training, and rewarding Taj employees for their work.”

“Every time they interact with a guest they should look for an opportunit­y to delight him,” said H.N. Srinivas, senior vice-president of human resources. During a 24-hour stay, a guest will have an average of 40 to 42 contacts with employees. “We’ve mapped it,” he said.

Hotel general manager Karambir Singh Kang, whose wife and two young sons died that day, said he felt like the captain of a ship. “I think that’s the way everyone else felt, too,” Kang said. “A sense of loyalty to the hotel, a sense of responsibi­lity to the guests.”

Deshpande has taught the case in Harvard Business School’s Owner/ President Management Executive Education program. The website said the plan is to use the case more widely as an example of managing “post-crisis recovery of a flagship corporate brand.”

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