24 Jan 2011  HBS Cases

Terror at the Taj

Under terrorist attack, employees of the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower bravely stayed at their posts to help guests. A new multimedia case by Harvard Business School professor Rohit Deshpandé looks at the hotel's customer-centered culture and value system. Key concepts include:

  • 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? And is this level of loyalty and dedication something that can be replicated and scaled elsewhere?
  • Taj employees carry a sense of loyalty to the hotel, and a sense of responsibility to the guests.
  • In India and the developing world, there's a much more paternalistic equation between employer and employee that creates a kinship. Long length of service is recognized and rewarded by top management.

 

On November 26, 2008, 175 people died in Mumbai, India, when 10 terrorists simultaneously struck sites. Of the five locations—all well-known landmarks—the beautiful domes of the hotel known as the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower would become most closely associated with the horrific attacks in the world's collective conscience.

"Not even the senior managers could explain the behavior of these employees."

A new multimedia case by HBS professor Rohit Deshpandé offers a flip side to the nightmarish scenes that unfolded in real time on television screens around the globe. Produced in collaboration with Ruth Page and David Habeeb of the HBS Educational Technology Group, "Terror at the Taj Bombay: Customer-Centric Leadership" documents the bravery and resourcefulness shown by rank-and-file employees during the siege. (The case is not yet available to the public.)

Video interviews with hotel staff and senior executives, combined with security footage of the attack, create a documentary-like account of events that took place over the course of 59 hours. The case also covers the hotel's history, its approach to training employees, the "guest is God" philosophy inherent in Indian culture, and the question of how the hotel will recover after the attacks.

Underlying this framework is a central conundrum: Why did the Taj employees stay at their posts, jeopardizing their safety in order to save hotel guests? And is this level of loyalty and dedication something that can be replicated and scaled elsewhere?

"Not even the senior managers could explain the behavior of these employees," says Deshpandé. "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." A dozen employees died.

Most difficult case

Deshpandé, a native of Bombay (now Mumbai), says it took a full week to conduct the interviews. "This is the hardest case I've ever worked on. One reason is that I had no conception of what it would be like to have people confront the trauma again. We objectify it, keep emotion at a distance, but after 15 minutes of questions with a video camera in a darkened room, there are deeper, more personal reflections of what happened. It was really, really hard.

"The other thing is that I grew up there. So the Taj is part of my memories, too. As one of the interview subjects said, the Taj is their Taj, meaning anyone who has ever walked through its doors. It's a place that means many things to many people."

In one interview, Taj general manager Karambir Singh Kang describes his father, a military man, telling him that his job is like being the captain of a ship. "I think that's the way everyone else felt, too," says Kang. "A sense of loyalty to the hotel, a sense of responsibility to the guests." Several hours into the siege, Kang's wife and two young sons died in a fire that swept through their apartment on the hotel's top floor. Even after receiving the news, he insisted on staying at his post to help direct a response to the ongoing attack. (The battle for control at the Taj would continue a full two days after other locations had been secured.)

Nothing in the employees' training could have prepared them for such an unprecedented situation, Deshpandé says. Yet further interviews and text documents from the case provide background on the unique culture of Tata Sons, the Taj's parent company, while also revealing the exacting process for selecting, training, and rewarding Taj employees for their work.

Mandate to delight

Awards are given for longer terms of service, for example, with Group Chairman Ratan Tata (HBS AMP 71, 1975) personally recognizing those who have served 10 to 35 years and more. Employees who have demonstrated outstanding service are selected for inclusion in the Managing Directors Club and recognized across the organization.

Such incentives aren't so unusual, of course. But interviews with senior management demonstrate how seriously the task of building a customer-centric culture and value system is taken at the Taj and its parent company, Indian Hotels.

"Every time they interact with a guest they should look for an opportunity to delight him," says 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 explains.

When it comes to selecting employees, Indian Hotels CEO Raymond N. Bickson describes how he first looks for "nice people who are not afraid of serving people." He can teach them to be a bellman, a waiter, or a desk clerk, he continues. "But I can't teach them to be nice. I can't teach that spirit of ownership."

"In India and the developing world, there's a much more paternalistic equation between employer and employee," says Ratan Tata, chairman of Tata Sons. "I think that creates a kinship." Every employee donates a small portion of their salary to a pool that can be drawn on in the event a colleague suffers an accident or other significant personal setback.

To date, Deshpandé has taught the case in the School's Owner/President Management Executive Education program; he expects it to be used more widely, particularly since it can also be taught as an example of managing the postcrisis recovery of a flagship corporate brand.

No clear answer

The question of why the Taj employees demonstrated such loyalty elicited a variety of responses from students, Deshpandé says.

"For example, some suggested that it has to do with governance of the Tatas; two-thirds of their profits are donated to charitable causes, so the employees feel that they are working for a higher good." But the IT firm Tata Consultancy Services has had many of the same difficulties with employee retention that other Indian IT firms experience. "In that case, the loyalty might be more to self rather than to the organization," he says.

A definitive answer to the question of why the Taj employees behaved as they did may not be possible; but managers who read and view the case will likely come away with a clearer sense of what it takes to build a particular culture and value system and how to recruit, train, and reward employees in nonmonetary ways.

"It's all of those very specific things that build a customer-centric culture in an organization," Deshpandé says. "This example far exceeds anything I've seen before."

Julia Hanna is associate editor of the HBS Alumni Bulletin.