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Green Hotelier: Why did Lemon Tree decide to make it a priority to employ people with disabilities?
Aradhana Lal: Lemon Tree believes that the brand should stand for more than ‘just profit’ and we are therefore driving the brand to become truly Indian and Trusted. In order for us to make these values a part of our DNA, we have focused our 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.
GH: Why is being an inclusive employer important to Lemon Tree?
AL: We believe that people with disabilities (which can be physical, social or economic disabilities leading to an opportunity deprivation) must be provided the same opportunities as others to realise their full potential and live with dignity. By creating a supportive environment in the organisation that allows them to deliver their best, we are able to play a part, however small, in social inclusiveness, opportunity/livelihood creation and therefore nation building.
GH: What initiatives has Lemon Tree implemented to attract employees with disabilities?
AL: Lemon Tree has defined the goal as mainstreaming ‘Opportunity Deprived Indians’ i.e. ODIs into its workforce. ODIs include:
Employees with Disability (EwD):
People who belong to marginalised sections of society or are from the Economically / Socially (EcoSoc) weak segment:
In order to mobilise the above segments of people we partner with a number of non-profit/non-government organisations as well as government departments (who work closely with these people) and hire ODIs through the year.
Guests have shown tremendous support and appreciation for our inclusive hiring approach and have often given us excellent feedback
GH: What does Lemon Tree do to ensure employees with disabilities are integrated with the workforce? Are there special accessibility measures they’ve installed, is there special training for the staff on how to work with their disabled colleagues?
AL: In the early stages, we inducted EwD only in back-end roles like Kitchen Stewarding and Housekeeping, where direct guest interaction was minimal. Also the focus was only on SHI employees. This gave us an opportunity to develop standard operating procedures and training modules in an iterative manner. Subsequently we extended this initiative to guest contact areas such as our restaurants. Here, interaction with guests is an integral part of the job role. We then re-engineered the relevant service process to enable EwD to interact with guests. We also engaged people with orthopaedic impairment where their disability did not come in the way of their job performance. We have now done four trials with Down’s Syndrome in Delhi/NCR at the coffee shop. Now that we have built sufficient learning and experience from this exercise, we will hire such candidates across other hotels in the group and slowly ramp up to a national scale. Autism trials have started too and the learnings are being assimilated.
The service process flow required innovative ideas like EwD cards, a card (sample below) introducing the employee and how best he/she can serve the guest which helps in setting expectations and sensitising the guest. We introduced numbered menu items which simplified the most difficult part of the process and made it easy for a guest to place an order. These processes helped make the engagement a very positive one, for both guest and EwD.
We have also brought in a few workplace policies that are part of this initiative. For instance, we have provided whistles to all EwD that can be used at a time of emergency (fire, etc.) to attract attention and get help. Though most of our employees are now adequately conversant in the Indian Sign Language, we frequently engage experts to help us with one-on-one chats with EwD, so that we are able to give them a fair hearing, as and when required. At the time of recruitment, we also try to employ EwD who live close to our hotels since commuting long distances can be very inconvenient.
A programme of this nature requires sensitisation of the entire team and brings its own share of challenges. However, we have been able to implement a comprehensive programme pan India that is functioning well. We have successfully conducted sensitivity training for all employees on board, including new hires every month. This was led by external experts whose forte is Indian Sign Language (ISL) and who have worked closely with SHIs. This has since become an integral part of our system and employees now welcome their differently-abled colleagues. We have recently implemented an intensive refresher programme called ‘Expressions’ where all key stakeholders in the hotels and at the Corporate Office are being re-trained to use ISL with our SHI colleagues.
This sort of commitment also requires substantial investments in training and refresher modules to keep their skill and knowledge levels up to standard since EwD are vulnerable to being left behind over time. The training formats need to be customised to their needs and the course material and delivery systems need to be in tune with the specific requirements of such employees. We have found the differently-abled to be diligent learners and as, if not more, competent as others provided they are trained appropriately.
An example of specialised training material/delivery system is the creation and implementation of a visual aid (video/film). For all processes in Housekeeping and Food & Beverage Service, training modules that were written for employees have been enhanced with the use of ISL in the video. This has helped increase the understanding of tasks greatly and is leading to greater productivity.
GH: What have been the benefits of employing more people with disabilities?
AL: The benefits are quite clear and include:
For Nation Building
GH: What have been the challenges?
AL: Challenges exist at each step of the journey starting from sensitising all employees about disability and then about specific disabilities and how they can (as team members) engage with a person with a particular disability. This can get tough as there is a high turnover in the hotel industry and new people join in large numbers every month. Then we do job mapping, to carefully understand (for each role) which tasks can be easily done by a person of a specific disability and for which tasks will his or her disability come in the way of doing the job. This is an important process and can be quite intensive and challenging. A key area to work on is the mobilisation of new employees – through NGOs or directly – and create awareness amongst potential candidates and their families that there is an opportunity for the Person with Disability (PwD) to come forward, work hard and maintain a job. As disability is taboo in India and is seen as a social stigma, sometime the debate / discussion with the family can be quite challenging.
GH: What has been the reaction of guests to having people with disabilities as their waiters / receptionists? Does Lemon Tree do anything to alert guests to their server’s disabilities?
AL: Guests have shown tremendous support and appreciation for our inclusive hiring approach and have often given us excellent feedback and even named the EwD whose service they enjoyed. They share feedback with us one on one and on TripAdvisor.
Re: alerting guests about our Sustainability approach, Lemon Tree Hotels focus on the Triple Bottomline i.e. 3BL which comprises:
People | Fair and beneficial business practices toward labour and the community.
Planet | Sustainable environmental practices
Profit | Economic value created by the organisation after deducting all costs
This is built into all the operational practices and impacts the use of electricity / power, replacement of traditional energy by renewable energy, water recycling and reuse, waste management, etc. Also from the people perspective we have built a culture of inclusion and diversity and hire people with disability as well as people from economically and socially marginalised segments.
The above approach is communicated to our guests and customers through our website and social media platforms; through extensive media coverage and exclusive stories on our company-wide sustainability initiatives; as well as in the lobby through a digital photoframe and in the rooms on the television home channel. Also our staff and managers are trained to speak of the work we do with respect to inclusion and environmentally friendly practices.
GH: What advice would you give hotels who do want to create a more inclusive workforce?
AL: My advice would be to work on inclusion/diversity in a structured manner and focus on each step. This will help them succeed with this strategy. Lemon Tree Hotels has developed an inclusion model, which I am happy to share: