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Seema Rawat, a lively mother of two from a working-class family, was under pressure from her husband and mother-in-law to get a job to help with the household’s rising expenses, including the costs of her children’s education.
She was willing, but there was a catch: Rawat has been deaf since birth. Though she attended a government school for the hearing-impaired until around age 15, she expresses herself mainly through sign language. Communication with those who do not know sign language can be difficult, however.
Yet that proved no obstacle to a job at Lemon Tree Hotels, India’s biggest mid-market hotel chain, which actively seeks out disabled people to employ at its 44 sites across the country. For the past two years, Rawat has cleaned rooms, the restaurant, poolside and other public spaces at the Lemon Tree Premier hotel at New Delhi’s international airport. She works alongside hearing- and speech-impaired kitchen stewards, bellboys and servers in the food and beverage department.
All told, Lemon Tree employs 550 disabled workers — mostly hearing- and speech-impaired but also wheelchair users and amputees. Together they account for 12 per cent of the chain’s 4,600-strong workforce.
With 24 hotels in development, Lemon Tree is aiming to step up recruitment of people it calls “opportunity-deprived Indians”, including those with physical disabilities and young people from deeply disadvantaged economic and social backgrounds, such as orphans raised in institutional care.
“There is no charity in all of this,” says Aradhana Lal, Lemon Tree’s vice-president of sustainability initiatives. “This is not done as charity or corporate social responsibility. It is part of our business model and it has become our culture.”
Lemon Tree’s inclusive hiring began as an almost random act by the company’s founder, Patu Keswani, 59, a first-generation entrepreneur. His parents — both civil servants, a railway engineer and an army doctor — had made it clear that, given the inequity of Indian society, they did not greatly approve of their son’s growing wealth.
Lemon Tree opened its first hotel in 2004. Two years later, when it had five properties, it received its first institutional investment — $75m from Warburg Pincus. Keswani, a veteran of India’s Tata conglomerate and AT Kearney, the management consultancy, recalls “feeling absurdly grateful to God” for the development.
He duly instructed his human resources manager to hire two young deaf people as kitchen stewards in one of his hotels. “I had no clue, no thought process, no vision,” he says. “It was just a thank you.” This led to an emotional meeting with one of the deaf workers’ mothers, who expressed her gratitude to Keswani for giving her son a chance of a dignified life.
Inspired, in 2007 Keswani gave his executive team the target of hiring 100 hearing- and speech-impaired workers by 2011. Not everybody lauded the initiative. “The employees resisted it completely,” he recalls. “They felt these guys would not do their jobs and the additional load would come on the other guys.”
Keswani and other executives held staff meetings to explain his rationale. Job descriptions and processes were clarified so that hearing-impaired employees could be incorporated into the teams without burdening others. “Our approach was, ‘how do we make the disabilities irrelevant?’” he says.
Today, Lemon Tree’s inclusive hiring policies are a core part of the company’s culture. Most of the disabled workers are referred to the hotel through a network of non-governmental organisations that work with hearing-impaired Indians.
Each new able-bodied recruit must take a four-hour introductory sign language course to learn to communicate with non-hearing colleagues. Many managers are more advanced in the skill. Staff and managers undergo training on how to work with disabled colleagues — for example, avoiding making too many last-minute changes to schedules; advance planning and predictability are often key to disabled workers’ successful navigation of their daily lives.
Rather than being a source of resentment, Lemon Tree’s commitment to hiring disabled staff is a matter of pride for many of its other young workers, who feel they are making a positive contribution to society while at work — leading to high levels of employee morale.
“Our employees started loving the initiative,” Keswani says. “As Indians, we get inured to misery. We want to do something, but we feel helpless. So when you are part of an organisation that is actually focusing on this, you feel then that you are not just working for profit but for something bigger. In a very small way, it’s nation-building.”
Guests at the hotels, too, have expressed their appreciation, through positive reviews about the policy on travel websites. At the same time, employing hearing-impaired and other disabled workers has not been just about creating a feelgood factor. Lemon Tree’s senior managers insist it makes sound business sense.
“These people have high energy and work in a very earnest manner,” says Lal. “They want to work hard because someone has finally given them a chance.”
In an industry where 60 per cent of staff leave their jobs each year, hearing-impaired workers have a far lower attrition rate — of 25-30 per cent — which reduces the pressure on the company’s training and recruitment.
“In the hospitality sector turnover is very quick,” says Lal. “People move between hotel companies and outside hotels very fast. If we include people with disabilities, we open up to thousands more people.”
In some areas, such as housekeeping, Lal says hearing-impaired staff have been more productive than their hearing colleagues, cleaning an average of 19-20 rooms a day, compared with 15-16 by able-bodies staff. In the restaurant, hearing-impaired employees are often far quicker to notice customers who are trying to attract a waiter’s attention. “They have higher powers of observation than other people,” says Lal.
To interact with guests, hearing-impaired staff wear badges that identify them as deaf; some communication takes place through gestures. Otherwise they carry pads and paper and ask guests to write any requests. If further help is needed, a hearing employee is called.
Hearing-impaired workers are also not relegated to the lowest rungs of the company ladder. Training necessary for promotions is provided in sign language, for example.
Mohamad Danish, 27, is deaf and from the busy shopping streets of Delhi’s Karol Bagh neighbourhood, where his father sells paan, the combination of betel leaf and areca nut, sometimes tobacco, that is chewed as a stimulant. Danish has worked in a Lemon Tree hotel for four years and is a supervisor in the food and beverage department, heading a team that serves in the coffee shop and delivers food ordered through room service.
“It’s normal after completing school that you have to look for a job,” he signs. “It’s very good here, and we can interact with everybody.”
Sumant Jaidka, Lemon Tree’s senior vice-president of operations, says his ambition is for the company to employ a hearing-impaired person as a hotel general manager.
In recent years, Lemon Tree’s inclusive hiring has gone beyond people with speech impairment. It has employed wheelchair users and people with missing limbs and other disabilities, including in front-desk jobs.
As part of what is still a small-scale project, it has recruited about 30 young people with Down’s syndrome to work in the kitchens and restaurants.
Keswani is looking beyond physical and intellectual disabilities to widen Lemon Tree’s hiring policies to those he considers India’s most economically and socially disadvantaged — orphans, for example — who lack family and community support. These include widows, divorcees and, in some cases, people who are illiterate.
While these workers are usually paid slightly less than market rates, they receive valuable training and work experience, which improves their chances of finding better-paid jobs elsewhere.
“I am looking at Lemon Tree as a ‘skilling’ organisation,” he says. “These are guys who are unemployable, and I bring them into our system, give them entry-level jobs [and] pay them marginally above minimum wage.” With the skills they acquire over, say, a two-year period, when they move on to other companies they are usually able to do so, Keswani adds, at double the salary.
Lemon Tree’s expansion plans mean that it aims to double its workforce to nearly 10,000 within three to four years.
Keswani says he wants to ensure that 40 per cent of the workforce are those the company refers to as “opportunity-deprived Indians”, who are either physically or intellectually disabled or come from the country’s most disadvantaged social groups.
He is looking into working with orphanages to train teenagers — as they near the age when they must leave the institutions — for jobs at Lemon Tree hotels.
“I feel a little embarrassed about making money in this country, where there is so much income disparity,” Keswani says. “If the private sector does not focus on providing social impact, then as a country we will fail.”
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