HomeBusinessLearning & Development26/11 - When some Indian hotel staffs became soldiers to save customers

26/11 – When some Indian hotel staffs became soldiers to save customers


2004 -A SIGN

The year 2004 will always be remembered as the year of Tsunami. More than two hundred thousand lives were lost. Nature’s wrath and fury not only brought devastation in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand but also took away almost 100 lives in the Independent Republic of Maldives. Among many resorts and hotels which bore the brunt of tsunami, also were 2 resort hotels of Taj Group. Taj Exotica and Taj Coral Reef. Customers who were staying at the hotel that day recalls, “As soon as the giant waves struck, Taj Group employees rushed to every room and escorted them to high ground. Women and children were sheltered on 2nd floor. Many were panic-stricken, believing that more waves could follow, but staff members remained calm and optimistic. No more waves arrived, but the first one had inundated kitchens and storerooms. Led by the head chef, a Taj Group team immediately set about managing food supplies, carrying cooking equipment to high ground, and preparing a hot meal. Housekeeping staff retrieved furniture from the lagoon, pumped water out of a restaurant and restored some normalcy. Finally, lunch was served by 1:00 PM “. The two Taj hotels kept doing their duty for 2 more days till help arrived from India. All guests were flown to Chennai by Taj’s chartered aircraft, no casualties reported and no panic. What a remarkable event, what remarkable courage, what remarkable example of customer service and Seva (Service) displayed by ordinary Hotel staffs. Where did these heroes come from? Was this a coincidence or god’s will that these brave hearts were present that day in Maldives in those hotels to save the lives of their guests?


On 26th Nov 2008, the darkest night ever in 21st Century India, at around 9.20 PM- 10 LET terrorist from Pakistan started executing their nefarious plan at Mumbai. First a group opened gun fire at Chhatrapati Shivaji terminus killing 58 people on spot. They then blew up a gas station. The Terrorist armed with AK 47 rifles then moved on to their 2nd target zone -Nariman House business and residential complex housing the Jewish Chabad Lubavitch outreach centre and then Leopold Café and then they arrived at Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. They first attacked guests around the swimming pool and then moved inside to the bars and restaurants. Two of the terrorists entered the hotel through the front door and started shooting and throwing grenades. Imagine you and your family     are taking a swim in a hotel during your stay and some terrorist suddenly enters and opens fire. However, this story is about what happened within Taj Hotel that day. An extremely high-profile dinner event was going on in the 2nd floor banquet room. Hindustan Unilever’s entire leadership team including CEOs were part of that event. About 35 Taj Mumbai employees, led by a 24-year-old banquet manager, Mallika Jagad, were assigned to manage the event. Mallika’s team was serving the main course to the guests when suddenly the terrorist entered Taj and started shooting. At first the Hotel staff thought those noise as fireworks at nearby wedding however after few mins their assumption was proved wrong. The staff started adapting to the changing situation again. Mallika had the doors locked and the lights turned off quickly. She asked everyone to lie down quietly under tables and refrain from using their cell phones. With every minute passing by tension was rising, the sound of frequent gun shots outside was pumping their blood faster to their heart. Outside the Hotel, Mumbai police started their operation. Once the cops understood that this was no gang war going on but a terrorist attack, they started surrounding the hotel and securing the gates. After some time those terrorists started attacking the cops but what was happening inside ? Taj’s staff kept calm just like 2004, constantly went around offering water and asking people if they needed anything else. One whole night went by listening to the terrorists rampaging through the hotel, hurling grenades, firing automatic weapons, and tearing the place apart. In the morning, a fire started in the hallway outside, forcing the group to try to climb out the windows. A fire crew spotted them and, with its ladders, helped the trapped people escape quickly. The staff evacuated the guests first, and no casualties resulted. Rohit Deshpande and Anjali Raina of Harvard Business School who were researching on this matter was told by 24-year-old Mallika Jagad recalling that night “It was my responsibility, I may have been the youngest person in the room, but I was still doing my job.”

That night another remarkable incident was happening at Taj at 9.30 pm. Taj Mumbai also had an upscale Japanese Restaurant named Wasabi. A warning call from a hotel operator alerted the staff that terrorists had entered the building and were heading towards the restaurant. Forty-eight-year-old Thomas Varghese, the senior waiter at Wasabi, immediately instructed his 50-odd guests to crouch under tables, and he directed employees to form a human shield around them. Four hours later, security men asked Varghese if he could get the guests out of the hotel. He decided to use a spiral staircase near the restaurant to evacuate the customers first and then the hotel staff. The 30-year Taj veteran insisted that he would be the last man to leave, but sadly he never made it. The terrorists gunned him down as he reached the bottom of the staircase. So, the story is not about Malika alone or those 35 hotel staffs as you can see.

“Son, do your duty. Do not desert your post.” – If I ask you to guess what type of people will say such lines, immediately you will recall some Army Generals. You are correct, these were the precious words of a retired Indian army general who was the father of the General Manager of Taj Mumbai Karambir Singh Kang. Now can you guess when were these words got spoken? Immediately you will think, these were told by Karambir’ s father when Taj came under terrorist attack on 26/11. This time you are wrong. These words were uttered on 27/11 when Karambir called his parents to tell them that the terrorists had killed his wife and children who were residing on the 6th floor suite of Taj where it’s General Manager usually lives. On 26/11-night Karambir took charge at the Taj Mumbai the moment he arrived (from a conference he was attending at another Taj property), supervising the evacuation of guests, and coordinating the efforts of firefighters amid the chaos. As per his words, “If it [the hotel] goes down, I will be the last man out.” By now I hope you have seen a pattern at Taj, if not read again from the top till here.

 26/11 left a deep scar in every every Indian’s heart, those 10 Pakistani Terrorists killed 166 people leaving more than 300 injured. 9 of those terrorists were killed in combat and 1 was captured and sentenced to death by the court. At Taj Mumbai 31 people died however as many as 11 Taj Mumbai employees—a third of the hotel’s casualties—laid down their lives while helping between 1,200 and 1,500 guests escape. Taj’s customers whom the Hotel likes to call as Guests were overwhelmed by employees’ dedication to duty, their desire to protect customers without regard to personal safety, and their quick thinking. Restaurant and banquet staff rushed people to safe locations such as kitchens and basements. Telephone operators stayed at their posts, alerting guests to lock doors and not step out. Kitchen staff formed human shields to protect guests during evacuation attempts. That night customer centricity saw a new benchmark getting created and till now researchers could not find out why exactly the Taj Hotel staffs behaved this way. Rohit Deshpande however found few possible reasons for this behaviour.   



Many of you must know that Taj Group of hotels is owned by TATA Group (TATA was established in 1868 by JN Tata when India was under British Occupation). During 1890s JN Tata was denied entry into the Royal Navy Yacht club by British Security and they pointed him to a board that said, “No Entry for Indians and Dogs,” JN Tata vowed to set up a hotel the likes of which the British had never seen. The Taj was thus born in 1903. When any organization has such deep-rooted past and cause more often or not it has always surprised the world. That along with Taj Group’s unusual hiring, training, incentive systems and high focus on customer centricity have created a kind of organizational culture where employees are willing to do almost anything for customers even if that means putting their lives on the line. When it comes to recruitment Taj follows a very strange policy, they tend to hire most of their frontline staff from smaller cities, town and remotest of places in India. The secondary benefit of this policy is off course reduced salary cost however the primary driving factor of this hiring policy is that Taj believes (and rightly so) that traditional Indian values—such as respect for elders and teachers, humility, consideration of others, discipline, and honesty—still hold sway in hinterlands of India. In the cities, by contrast, youngsters are increasingly driven by money and are unlikely to be loyal to the company or empathetic with customers. When it comes to management and leadership roles It also follows the same value driven hiring, it does not recruit MBAs from Tier1 or premiere B-Schools, as the Taj Group has found that MBA graduates from lower-tier B-schools want to build careers with a single company, tend to fit in better with a customer-centric culture, and aren’t driven solely by money. A hotelier must want, to make other people happy, and the Taj Group keeps that top of mind in its recruitment processes. Each new hires including management hires are sent through 18 months of classroom and on-the-job operations training vs the standard market practice of 12 months training.

 Rohit Deshpande mentions in his report that the Taj Group’s experience and research has shown that employees make 70% to 80% of their contacts with guests in an unsupervised environment. Training protocols therefore assume, first, that employees will usually have to deal with guests without supervision—that is, employees must know what to do and how to do it, whatever the circumstances, without needing to turn to a supervisor. All trainees are assured that the CEO and entire leadership team of Taj will support any employee decision which puts guests first always (No red eyes will be shown on short term costs) . To drive customer centricity further into the blood of every employee, The Taj group encourages its employees to also think of themselves as agents of the customer rather than agents of the Hotel. H.N. Shrinivas, the senior vice president of human resources for the Taj Group, notes: “If you empower employees to take decisions as agents of the customer, it energizes them and makes them feel in command.” That’s in part why the Taj Group has won Gallup’s Great Workplace Award in India for two years in a row. Taj group also has a unique rewards and recognition program to keep its employees motivated but at the same time focussed on customer. in 2001 the Taj Group created a Special Thanks and Recognition System (STARS) that links customer delight to employee rewards. Employees accumulate points throughout the year in three domains: compliments from guests, compliments from colleagues, and their own suggestions. By accumulating points, Taj Group employees aspire to reach one of five performance levels: the managing director’s club; the COO’s club; and the platinum, gold, and silver levels. For reaching each level employees are then rewarded differently. 

 Culture building takes time, it takes daily effort, it takes money, there is no endpoint though, It is a continuous daily journey. There is no fixed ROI, no tangible benefits can be shown to anyone any given day however customer will feel it every day, employees will feel it everyday and specially when push comes to shove you might experience unexplained phenomenon which will make your organization great and not just a mediocre good. Out of the many things that I personally dislike for being driven top-down, culture building is an exception. It always help when leaders set the tone at the top and lead by example, when leaders at the top consciously think of driving culture within an organization themselves, rather than outsourcing culture building activities to HR or any consulting firm then culture building becomes as natural and easy just like a river flowing from high mountains to the plains. For the Taj Group, 26/11 will always be remembered sadly but also proudly as the day when their ordinary staffs became extraordinary soldiers to save their Guests and upheld Indian tradition of Atithi Devo Bhava. 

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Biswadeep Banerjee
Working as a Sr. Manager Networks & Communication for a leading European IT Organization. Thinker, researcher and a Rebel at heart.
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