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Why Taj Employees Offered Their Lives to Save Guests During Terrorist Attack

Employees of the Taj Mahal Palace and Hotel in Mumbai were well acquainted with the back stairways and exits of the famous hotel. They had a quick way to escape when when 10 terrorists launched an attack on November 26, 2008, killing 175 people over two days of shooting.

But many didn't flee, instead choosing to help guests escape and then returning to help more. Telephone operators stayed the night, informing guests and telling them to keep their rooms quiet and dark. A dozen employees died in the firefight.

Why did they not leave? Why did they perform above and beyond the call of duty?

A new case study from Harvard Business School, "Terror at the Taj Bombay: Customer-Centric Leadership", finds possible answers both in the traditions of the country as well as in the deep customer-centric culture infused by the operators of the Taj: Indian Hotels and Tata Sons.

According to case author Rohit Deshpandé, a professor at Harvard Business School and a native of India, at least three factors were in play at the Taj:

  1. The right people. In the case, 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, "but I can't teach them to be nice. I can't teach that spirit of ownership."
  2. Indian culture. "Athidhi devo bhavah," or the "guest is god", is deeply ingrained in Indian culture. In short, the phrase means that honoring guests is equal to honoring god, a message deeply embedded at the Taj.
  3. Employee-Employer relations. In India there is a strong "paternalistic equation" between employer and employee, an attribute underscored by rewards given by top executives to staffers for long length of service. Done right, relationships in Indian companies can feel more like family than us versus them.
In short, the case shows how non-monetary factors such as a company's governance and values can be a powerful motivator for employees.

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(Photo by Flickr user dms_303, CC 2.0)
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