Interview with Patu Keswani, Chairman and Managing Director, Lemon Tree Hotels

HCLI Research
Published 29 December 2015

Lemon Tree Hotels won the Asian Human Capital Award (ACHA) for its innovative human capital practices. Lemon Tree Hotels has approximately 800 employees who are physically or mentally disabled, or opportunity deprived. Read on for a discussion with Patu Keswani, Chairman and Managing Director, for future plans, how roles are tailored for employees with disabilities and what other companies can learn from Lemon Tree Hotels.

HQ Asia: How did you decide to start including inclusive HR practices in Lemon Tree Hotels?

Patu Keswani: That happened quite by accident. In 2007, I think I quite randomly told  Human Resources to just hire two people with disabilities, two people who were speech and hearing impaired. And I asked to put them in one of the back-of-the-house areas because I was not quite clear obviously how they would integrate with the rest. And that’s when we started this journey. And a few months later, a lady came to invite me to her son’s wedding and when she saw me, she brought this huge bouquet of flowers, she started crying. So obviously it was quite astounding for me and it turned out that her son was one of those two [disabled people] that we hired. She said that it was because he had a job that he was able to get married. So this was quite inspiring and after that, we expanded the initiative.

HQA: Can you talk about any challenges that you have had in employing employees with disabilities?

PK: Firstly, in this journey there has been great learning and challenges. Fundamentally,  staff, the workforce, resist induction of people with disabilities initially because they feel that they are not going to contribute to a full day’s work but over time, when you sensitize them and you have town halls and you communicate and so on and so forth, people start accepting. But the first challenge was integration into the broader workforce.

The second challenge was, of course, developing learning and development interventions, which are tailored to their specific needs because they can’t be trained in the same manner, as they can’t hear or they can’t see. So you got to completely realign your learning and development.

The third challenge was job mapping and where required redefining roles so that their disability did not come in the way of their doing their work i.e. ultimately it was not a disability. And I think we did that very successfully.

HQA: What do you see as the future of Lemon Tree Hotels?

PK: We are growing very fast so we are now, I think, the fourth largest hotel chain in India and we will be the second largest in two years. We have been growing aggressively and we are also expanding into new segments like vacation home ownership, room segregation and so on and so forth. So it is an exciting time professionally for the company. And it has been very high growth and high growth brings a lot of chaos with it.

One of India’s biggest needs today is that it has a very large and very young population which needs employment. But in order to get employment they need skilling. So how do you provide skilling as an organisation? If an organisation starts perceiving itself as a semi-social organisation— which means it contributes towards the nation—then one easy way to do so is to provide vocational education to people. But it’s not only your own employees you provide education to, it is the country at large. So how do you do that? You have what is called ‘desirable attrition’.

Right now we are less under 3500 employees. We have identified roles where we want no attrition because those are the musculature or skeleton of our system. But there are a lot of other roles where we encourage attrition – we hire an enormous number of young people who come into our system. We train them and they typically remain with us in those roles for some time. Keep in mind, hotel roles are typically tiring, long hours; you have to keep standing, low in engagement and not high paying. So people always look for a better opportunity if they don’t get promoted in the system, they will look for opportunity outside. And the hotel business is such that you can easily export yourself with your skill sets into retail, into banking, into airlines and so on. So hotels can actually be a training ground for a person. We regard this kind of attrition as desirable. Because we feel that we have contributed to the country by letting a large  number of people join our system, get trained and then move out for something better.

HQA: What are your plans to expand the employees with disabilities function within the hotels?

PK: We have two sets of disabled employees. One is those who are physically and mentally disabled and impaired, which includes Down syndrome, autism, orthopaedic, visual, speech and hearing impaired.

So we have a bunch of people who are speech and hearing impaired. We identified roles where, as I have said, their disability is irrelevant. We also got a bunch of people with Down syndrome, and another bunch of people with orthopaedic impairment, and a few people with visual impairment (integrating visual impairment into the hotel business is very difficult).

The other set is those we call ‘opportunity deprived’. Because they have been born in circumstances where they do not have any opportunity. They were born in poor regions; their parents have been migrant labourers so they do not have a good education. Typically this bunch has low literacy levels and what we want to do is hire them for which we lower our education qualification requirements.

So we are working on both and we call the combination in fact ‘opportunity deprived Indians’. So these are people who are deprived because of physical or mental disabilities or because of circumstances. We have about 800, which is about 25%, of them in our system right now. We plan to have 50% of our employees are people who are either physically or mentally disabled, or opportunity disabled.

HQA: What is a takeaway that other companies can glean from Lemon Tree?

PK: So if there was anything I would like Lemon Tree to help others do, it is to bring this shift in mind-set which is that you can be a social organisation. Without any compromise on profits or in revenue, you can still align yourself with a national objective of skilling people, of integrating people and helping people move from very low levels of income and dignity to a normal life. And I think that’s what I would really like us to do.

HQA: Do you feel that the presence of employees with disabilities is part of your business value proposition?

PK: Oh yes, it’s amazing. When we started this process, it was quite by chance. And as a group, what I found was initially that all the staff resisted it, and we had to sensitise the whole organisation. But today, our employees are the strongest supporters of this. And one of the most resonating points that our employees bring out is that they are very proud to be a part of a company that does this. So there is a huge buy-in by our employees.

Also, I must tell you that amazingly, once you redefine job roles for the employees with disabilities, their productivity levels are typically much, much higher than the productivity levels of other employees in that role. It’s amazing but it’s true.

The third is, customers’ buy-in and guests’ buy-in. They feel the same as employees in that we would like to do something and here is an organisation that’s doing it. So you get a lot more loyalty from them and that means improved revenue and profits.

And of course the government support says a lot now whereby they recognise [the importance of including employees with disabilities].

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