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Posted on Jan 11, 2012

How hiring for Empathy saved many lives

Leaders define the values for an organization. Values can have a huge impact on culture.

Imagine if your top value was empathy, and you only hired people who possessed a strong bias towards this value. However, having a high degree of empathy is something you either have – or you don’t. So finding such people would require a lot of effort, and might not seem worth it.

Can a single value make a significant difference for a business?

You bet. It proved to be the basis for the unexpected behavior by hotel staff that saved many lives, at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai India, during the 2008 terrorist attacks.

Insights into this event were revealed on the NPR Radio series All Things Considered, where they outlined how the value of empathy was at the root of the hotel staff behavior.

The Horrific Event

On November 26, 2008 terrorists made multiple attacks in the densely populated city of Mumbai, India, where ultimately 160 people died. Within hours after the assaults began, the landmark Taj Mahal Palace Hotel was in flames.

During this horrific event, hundreds of hotel staff workers did whatever they could to ensure the safety of hotel guests, at the risk of their own lives. Amazingly, NONE of the hotel staff fled the scene to protect their own lives. They all stayed to help hotel guests.

Many heroic stories were later revealed. Numerous tribute videos were created to honor these heroes.

There were stories of kitchen staff that formed a human shield to assist guests as they were evacuating, and died as a result. Hotel telephone operators, who had been evacuated, returned to help guests. Even the hotel’s General Manager worked to help guests, even though his family, who lived in the hotel, remained trapped and ultimately died in the fire.

So why did all of these employees remain in a building under attack, and focused on helping their guests get to safety?

The Secret Ingredient

NPR included an interview with Harvard professor, Rohit Deshpandé, who outlined the unique hiring strategy of the Taj Hotels. He personally went to investigate after this tragic event, looking to discover why these employees behaved this way.

What Deshpandé found was very interesting. The behavior of hotel employees could be linked back to the recruitment process and how they were trained and rewarded.

Recruiters for the Taj Hotel avoided the large cities and instead targeted smaller towns. They developed relationships with local schools and asked the school leaders to highlight individuals who demonstrated specific personal characteristics – specifically empathy.

In this NPR interview, it is further highlighted that even the recruiting of managers was purposeful. The Taj Hotel deliberately avoided top business schools and instead targeted second tier schools, under the belief that these graduates would be less motivated by money, and have a greater appreciation for the value of empathy.

Once hired, the training of these employees reinforced the importance of empathy. Then, ongoing reward and recognition programs ensured that this value remained at the forefront of all employee behavior.

Ultimately, the powerful value of empathy revealed itself in such a way that many lives were saved, because employees were focused on the needs of their hotel guests – naturally. Today, employees of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel are viewed as heroes, as their actions were clearly aligned with their values.

So, if you are a leader who wants to create a powerful culture that truly benefits others, start by clearly developing your differentiating values. Then recruit employees who possess these values, reinforce through training, and support through ongoing rewards.

You might discover it will someday save many lives.

Where have you experienced the value of empathy in action?


Special thanks to Graeme Newell for sharing this NPR interview!


1 Comment

  1. Very interesting.