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Building an Inclusive Organization, The Lemon Tree Hotel Way!


Lemon Tree Team


As you enter Lemon Tree Premier in Aerocity, the first thing that you may notice at the billing desk is Devender Basera, effortlessly handling his responsibilities with a smile on his face. Barely do you notice that he does it with only one functional hand. Believe me, this is just the beginning of the many happy faces that we encountered during our enlightening visit to Lemon Tree Premier-Delhi Airport, Aerocity, to understand the true meaning of diversity and inclusion from the stand point of including Opportunity Deprived Indians (referred to as ODI’s) and primarily Persons with Disability (PwDs).

Committed to Employees, Environment and Community with a socially inclusive work ethos, Lemon Tree Hotels believes that the brand should stand for more than ‘just profit’. The company has focused its efforts on creating a socially inclusive work environment which seeks to bring in people of different backgrounds, abilities and ethnicities and offer them work as a unified team with a common goal.

Lemon Tree Hotels provide employment and livelihood with dignity to ‘Opportunity Deprived Indians’ (ODI). This initiative was started in 2007 and as of November 2019, Lemon Tree has employed a total of ~1000 Opportunity Deprived Indians, or about one fifth of its workforce. The company’s guiding principle has been that Opportunity Deprived Indians (including physical, intellectual, social or economic disabilities) must be provided the same opportunities as others to realize their full potential and live with dignity.

Having recently won the award for ‘Investing in People’ Tourism For Tomorrow Awards 2019 at the World Trade & Travel Council global conference in Spain, Aradhana Lal and her team’s confidence is at an all-time high. Here are some sections of a heart-warming interaction that our Editor in Chief, Ekta Capoor had with Aradhana Lal, Vice President – Brand, Communications & Sustainability Initiatives; R Hari, General Manager – Human Resources and Kuntal Vegad, Associate General Manager – L&D

We have tried our level best to do justice to this compelling story but one must actually visit any of the 77 Lemon Tree portfolio of hotels across India, to experience the phenomenal BAU approach that has been applied to bring an opportunity deprived section of the society at par with any other person at work.

Tell us how you started on this incredible journey?

As Hari states, “The single agenda of HR is to make people happy and this is what drives us to strive further in making inclusion a key agenda in the company.”

Even before we started hiring people with disability in 2007 we were actively hiring people from North East, especially from economically backward and deprived segments. In 2007 a dialogue happened between the Human Resource Department and the Chairman & Managing Director – Patanjali G. Keswani, and they decided to hire two persons with hearing disability. “It was an experiment. The team was not sure how the new staff members would integrate with the rest of the team or if these people would be able to do the required tasks,” says Aradhana, “but, we started the journey none the less.” The impact of this small gesture was apparent when Mr. Keswani was approached by a very emotional mother of one of these employees with an invitation to attend his wedding. The sole reason for her son getting married was his financial stability and newly acquired confidence as a result of being employed at Lemon Tree Hotels. By merely giving an opportunity to a person with, until then, no opportunity… everything changed.

This turned the course of events and since that day, there has been no looking back. The experiment has matured into a flourishing programme that is redefining the idea of ‘normal’ and showing businesses the merits of employing persons with disability – without compromising on profits. As Aradhana puts it, “for us this is not charity or a CSR initiative. It is part of our business model and it has become our culture.” She continues, “Every person deserves an opportunity to lead a normal life, go to the movies, shop, get married, etc. all they need is that one chance to prove they can do it. In fact, we’ve seen that the productivity levels of Employees with Disability is sometimes much higher than other people in the same role.”

What are the different types of disabilities that you work with?

We started our journey in 2007, with Speech and Hearing Impaired employees. However today we work with many different disabilities: SHI’s (Deaf), Physically Handicapped (Orthopaedically Handicapped), Visually Impaired (Low Vision-Partially Blind), Intellectual Disability (Down Syndrome, Slow Learner, Mild MR, IDD) and Autism. 2 years back we also started working with Acid Survivors. In their case the physicality of the disability is at 2-3 levels. The eyes, ears or neck could be affected. However, the biggest concern is their mental health since these survivors have been through a traumatic experience and this is where the NGO’s play a crucial role in working with these people at an emotional level. This provides immense learning to us in how our employees should deal with acid survivors.

It is our endeavor to work with a new disability every year or two. We are currently exploring SLD (Special Learning Disabilities). These are new disabilities under the RPWD Act 2016. When you meet these people there is no way of knowing that the disability exists unless a colleague works and interacts with them. In order to support them to do all their tasks, appropriate training and amendments in the SOPs may be required.

What is the process of hiring people with disability?

Hiring Employees with Disability is a process that has to be approached with great sensitivity and intelligence and not emotionally, as some people would like to believe. Our approach towards hiring is coupled with the principle of equal rights vs equal responsibility.

A major aspect of this process is ‘job mapping’ and we have different hiring guidelines for different disabilities. We have designed our inclusion in a manner where we map the role and the disability type in such a manner that the disability becomes irrelevant and does not stop the employee from performing that role. As a result of this we are able to work with many different kinds of disabilities.

Of course like every project, this initiative comes with its own set of challenges. Once we identify the ideal roles, we take support from our Non-Government Organizations (NGO) partners that work on training and placement of PwDs. With the right support from NGOs, such as Sai Swayam Society, YouthForJobs, Dr Reddy’s Foundation. Muskaan NGO, Action for Autism, the programme has grown year on year.

The government, through organizations like National Skill Development Council (NSDC) and its numerous skill councils, is playing a diligent role in defining of appropriate training content, accrediting trainers, training organizations and certification of youth. Another initiative UKIERI (UK India Education Research Initiative) which is a joint effort of UK Government and Indian Government with respect to skilling, now includes skill development for people with disability, over the last 3 years. Glasgow Kelvin College and SCPwD- Skill Council for Persons with Disability are the two partners under the UKIERI programme and share best practices regarding training of persons with disability for employability. (Our Chairman & Managing Director, Patanjali G Keswani is the Chairperson of SCPwD).

What are the various benefits of hiring PwDs?

As mentioned before, hiring EwDs is a well thought out business decision and not a CSR activity. While it brings with it many challenges, it has shown us great results and brought us many benefits from the hiring and retention perspective as well as the brand building and nation building perspective.

Employee Perspective:

  • Accessing a bigger employee talent pool: In comparison withother hotel companies that source talent from Hotel Management Institutes, we have an additional talent pool to tap from – that nobody is running after. We can gainfully access this large pool of talent available by providing appropriate training and skilling.
  • Enhanced Creativity: Problem solving capabilities of a person with disability can be quite ingenious. An SHI for example will have higher observation abilities. A person who is autistic can see a pattern that none of us can see, which lends itself well to complex processes and data analysis.
  • Increased employee engagement: In the hotel industry 2 years is a pretty long period for an employee to continue in the same job. When an external survey was done with all our employees, what emerged was – the reason for them to keep working at Lemon Tree was often cited as satisfaction and pride in working for an organization that is inclusive. They enjoy the process of training/guiding and learning from our EWDs, who may have not had enough opportunities in life.
  • Reduced attrition: while the hotel industry bench mark of attrition is 40-50%, we find that for our Employees with Disability, it is almost half that percentage.

Brand Perspective:

Customers often try our hotels/brand because they have heard about our inclusion program and they want to see how such a hotel works. Once they stay with us, and when we provide high quality service, they then become brand ambassadors and speak of our hotels to their colleagues, friends and family. Some of them even share feedback on open forums like TripAdvisor, etc.

National Building Perspective:

These people represent a slice of the society. If society has people with disability, then why should Lemon Tree refrain from giving these people a representation within the company. Secondly, it helps us provide an opportunity to people who have not had equal opportunity thus far. It helps build their dignity, confidence and self-reliance.

What are the challenges that you face in hiring PwDs and their training and development. How do other employees co-operate in this process?

Hiring Employees with Disability is a fundamental business decision that comes with its own challenges in the areas of sourcing, training and integration in the team.

Hiring is just the first step in the journey of inclusion. Training and retaining is the next important aspect. Training is in fact the backbone of any initiative of inclusion that is being run at this level. It is impossible to increase the magnitude of our efforts in hiring EwDs in the absence of a robust training programme.

Lead by Kuntal Vegad, Associate General Manager-L&D, we have a Training department that has developed tailor made training programs for our EWDs, ranging from hearing impairment to autism to ensure a smooth workflow. Kuntal and her team is responsible for developing the entire content, training and assessments.

While SHIs are hired first and then undergo normal induction and training, those with Intellectual Disability are first put on a six-month internship. Special educators from out partner NGOs support the training and help teach them their key tasks and hotel terminology. They undergo “one-on-one” training which could last from six months to one year. “This is an opportunity for not just the trainee to learn but the supervisor as well,” says Aradhana.

We deploy the following methods to train employees:

  1. Tell (Where the trainer talks and trains)
  2. Show ( Where the trainer trains through a presentation/props)
  3. Do (Where the trainer makes the trainee demonstrate the task himself/herself)
  4. Assess (No archaic assessment, viva and on the job and visual test only, especially for the deaf)

Every employee has to undergo typically 80 hours of training. The pedagogy is that our programs are a mix of behavioural (40%) and functional (60%) skills. Of this 40% is classroom training and 60% is on the job training. To enhance participation and create a positive psychological impact we usually have inclusive batches where persons with different types of disabilities come together to train together. Even after the employees come on board they are demonstrated the tasks in sequence for a few more months till they start performing them effortlessly. Born out of need, to train our employees, we have also created our own unique, exhaustive Indian Sign Language (ISL) dictionary which has won us a national award. We have also developed a Me Book (tool) for people with Down Syndrome. It is a simple reference document that has images showing the person himself performing the different tasks sequentially. This is a great tool which helps the employees with Down Syndrome follow their day to day tasks seamlessly.

All said and done, more than training them for the job, the real challenge is designing the career progression for PwDs. For example, SHI employees can be groomed to grow in the team, by providing multiple inputs. The required training (for promotions) is provided to them in ISL. We understand that every employee comes with aspirations and providing them growth through training and skilling is extremely important. With Lemon Tree’s expansion plans to double its workforce to nearly 10,000 within 4-5 years, training of PwD’s shall always remain at the forefront of all activities.

Not only is it important to provide these employees adequate training to perform their day to day tasks, it is also important for their counterparts (without disability) to learn the skill of communicating with them in a manner that the disability becomes irrelevant. This means intensive training for every single employee. No employee at Lemon Tree gets confirmed unless he or she passes the Indian Sign Language course/certification. It is also important to sensitize the entire staff.

In addition to training we have to make some workplace adjustments, to help support the daily functioning of our EWDs. For instance, at our coffee shop, guests write down the order by referring to the serial number of the item they want from our numbered menu. Now, technology is being deployed with a gadget placed at a table that lights up when orders are given. Additionally, shift timings were altered to suit those with Downs Syndrome since these persons cannot be put on a night shift.

How do you manage and improve engagement levels in a scenario where the people you employ display a high level of emotional quotient, more than anything else?

R Hari, re-states, “the single agenda of the Human Resource Department is to make people Happy, how we achieve it may differ from organization to organization.”

People with Disability are often more motivated than those without disability. In fact, they increase the happiness quotient at the workplace.

From the organizations standpoint, large meetings and training sessions are arranged in the presence of an ISL interpreter or special educator. We also organize a one to one chat with Hotel General Managers and provide team feedback. Besides these we also explore other means of engagement like engaging with families of EWDs. This could be at a professional level (as in a review) and also at a social level (special lunch or dinner is arranged). This helps create bonding and the employee feels proud that because of him his family has been invited for lunch or dinner.

Our Employee Value Proposition designed by the receiver and not the management revolves around 5 key areas that affect an employee. This includes Lifetime SkillDiversity and inclusion, which has become an important part of our business model, Career Progression through consistent growth, Employee Delight which ensures that we care for our employees and consistently enhance employee experience and lastly Flexi Policies. Every year we conduct an employee engagement survey where we ask employees what they like, what they don’t like, what they want us to stop and what they want us to continue. For example in the survey surprisingly, 1 out of 5 employees wanted us to continue employing people with disabilities since it increased their happiness quotient and reduced their stress levels.

What is your advice to people who want to follow your footsteps?

As Aradhana puts it, “one needs to explore the unexplored talent. While on the one hand there are organizations, training companies, government departments, NGOs who provide skills and training to people with disabilities on the other hand there are employers like Lemon Tree, Radisson, Country Inns, Vishal Mega Mart, Shoppers Stop, KFC, Pizza Hut,  Costa Coffee Dominos, etc. who come forward to imbibe a culture of inclusivity. These become role models for other organizations who want to follow the footsteps and hence inclusivity becomes a virtuous cycle.”

She further states, “at Lemon Tree we have devised a 7 pillar model for introducing inclusivity. Any organization that wants to become inclusive must go ahead and Just Do It… (to borrow from Nike), following this model.”

Seven Pillar Inclusion Model:

  • Vision has to come from the top
  • It must cascade through the leadership team and the supervisory team
  • Assign dedicated resources
  • Sensitization of the entire workforce
  • Job mapping
  • Partnerships (with NGO’s and skilling organizations)
  • Scale up (nationally)

According to Aradhana, “If you follow this model, you will clearly envision and understand why you want to do this!”

What in your opinion makes Lemon Tree Hotels an Amazing Workplace?

At Lemon Tree Hotels , all of us including our EWDs go beyond the call of duty. We always stretch ourselves with exploring new ideas, innovation, inclusion, customer service, new facilities, etc. This brings out a larger part of the human potential and makes us an Amazing Workplace!

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