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The heroes of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.

The heroes of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel

For two nights and three days in November 2008, terrorists besieged the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, India, taking some people hostage, killing others and setting fire to the hotel's famous dome.

Hotel managers reported after the siege that all the Taj employees had stayed at their posts to help the guests, sometimes at risk to their own lives. Kitchen employees had been killed forming a human shield to protect guests who were fleeing the hotel. Telephone operators, after being evacuated, had chosen to return to the hotel so they could call guests and tell them what to do. And the Taj's general manager, Karambir Singh Kang, had worked to save people even after his wife and two sons, who lived on the sixth floor of the hotel, had died in the fire set by the terrorists.

In the December 2011 edition of Harvard Business Review, Rohit Deshpande [Desh-pan-day] and Anjali Raina examine why employees - from waiters to bellboys and from cleaners to maintenance technicians - chose to stay in a building under siege until their customers were safe. Their ethical, selfless behaviour stemmed, say the authors, from the hotel's human-resource management policies, including its employee training.

The Taj Group hires young people, often straight from school. Its recruitment teams look for candidates who show respect for their elders, cheerfulness and greatest need for income from a job. Those chosen are sent to one of six residential Taj Group skill-certification centres, where they learn and earn for the next 18 months.

The Taj Group recruits supervisors and junior managers from India's hotel-management and catering institutes. 'What the Taj Group looks for in managers is integrity, along with the ability to work consistently and conscientiously, to always put guests first, to respond beyond the call of duty and to work well under pressure,' explain Rohit Deshpande and Anjali Raina.

For the company's highest echelons, the Taj Group signs up to around 50 management trainees a year from India's business schools, usually for functions such as marketing or sales. It seeks customer-centric trainees rather than those motivated more by money.

The Taj Group has a 50-year history of training and mentoring, which helps to sustain employees' focus on satisfying guests. Training protocols assume that employees will usually have to deal with guests without supervision. They must therefore know what to do whatever the circumstances, without needing to turn to a supervisor.

Deshpande and Raina explain that 'One tool the company uses is a two-hour weekly debriefing session with every trainee, who must answer two questions: what did you learn this week and what did you see this week? The process forces trainee managers to absorb essential concepts in the classroom, try out newfound skills in live settings and learn to negotiate the differences between them. This helps managers to develop the ability to sense and respond on the fly.'

The authors say that: 'Trainees are assured that the company's leadership, right up to the chief executive, will support any employee decision that puts guests front and centre and that shows that employees did everything possible to delight them.'

In similar vein, Ruhama Goussinsky, [RuwHHahMah] (in the International Journal of Quality and Service Sciences, Volume 3 Number 3) confirms that when employees are given more control over their day-to-day working lives - including the power to decide exactly how to compensate customers who feel they have received poor service - they become less tense and emotionally exhausted at work.

For reasons such as this, training employees to give their best in stressful situations is growing in importance across the world. In a special report in the November 2011 issue of Workforce Management, Susan Ladika profiles the way in which international-development consulting firm Chemonics and international charity World Vision train their employees who work in pressurized and emotionally draining situations to cope with stress and build their resilience.

As the service sector assumes greater importance across the globe, teaching employees to take the initiative to ensure customer satisfaction will become an increasingly important aspect of vocational training.

There can be few better examples than the Taj Group of the value to the company of training the workforce to put the customer first. Just ask those whose lives were saved by the bravery of employees at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.

In other education news, the inaugural issue of the International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies has now been published by Emerald. This is the official journal of the World Association of Lesson Studies, an association of educational researchers and teaching professionals dedicated to educational research that focuses directly on improving the quality of learning in classrooms and other formal learning environments through pedagogical experiments or action research.

For more information about the journal, or to submit an article, go to: www.emeraldinsight.com/ijlls.htm