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Exclusive Interview | Rajesh Kumar, Vice President- Human Resources, The Lemon Tree Hotel Company

Editor: Congratulations on being nominated as one of the Great Places to Work in India.  What does this recognition mean to you?

Recognition in any form means that we are doing something right. It just reiterates the fact that our endeavour to make our Hotels an employee friendly, fun, spirited and refreshingly different place to work for, is going in the right direction. It also means we are hiring the right set of employees and training brand ambassadors who “trust” us. The most important thing it implies that the culture which Lemon Tree fosters is accepted en masse by its employees and they are proud to work with us.

Editor: We read the article with relish and a noticed a lot of emphasis on diversity hiring and differently abled / skilled workforce.  What were the benefits, but also what were the challenges and learning from driving this initiative?

I’m glad you asked the question. It has been a delight to work with our special colleagues. We have been hiring people with disabilities (PWDs) since 2007 when we on-boarded seven speech and hearing impaired associates, today we stand at a count close to 500 and have increased the spectrum to cover orthopedically handicapped, visually impaired, down syndrome and autism PWDs along with speech & hearing impaired colleagues.

Our journey over the last 10 years has been full of learning. Enabling these employees with disabilities (EWDs) has given us a sense of pride and not only that; it has improved each one of us as a human being. For us, these colleagues are not different, they are part of the system, as good as any other employee working at Lemon Tree Hotels.

Including them has increased creativity of the Team, all employees are tuned to accept and accommodate EWDs and put best efforts to train them using innovating ideas, especially when it comes to training EWDs with intellectual disability. We work as a team and walk as a team. Contribution by each and every team member in mainstreaming these individuals is very important. This inculcates a sense of pride and satisfaction within each person of the Team.

LTH and competition is similar in the product and services they offer. What stands out is the people connect. Hiring employees with disabilities not only gives us an edge but also contributes to building our brand purely on basis of word of mouth. We do not do charity but empower by providing employment to EWDs by enabling them to earn their livelihood with dignity. We are trying our best to sustain them and providing opportunity to those with less or no opportunity. We receive innumerable guest comments felicitating and commending our differently abled employees. Our EWD’s display commendable levels of productivity and are always ready with a smile.

Every disability comes with its own challenges. One of them is having different set of hiring guidelines for every disability. A lot of factors have to be kept in mind while hiring these set of people right from which areas are safer for them to what adjustments we can make in the infrastructure of the building to accommodate them.

Although attrition is less for this segment as compared to other colleagues yet it is high within the first two months of hiring. Another challenge we face is imparting technical skills to them as they come with negligible knowledge about the hospitality industry and its inherent processes. However, this gives us plenty of opportunity to devise innovative and impactful training techniques that are simplified over time.

Mobility is another factor. Most of them cannot be transferred to other hotels. Also their sensitivities to various happenings in life need to be taken into account.

A lot remains to be explored in this segment and we are at a very young stage in hiring these employees. This means, not just a lot of challenges but also a vast opportunity for becoming better or as we may say, going from “good to great”.

Editor: What can candidates who aspire to work with Lemon Tree Hotels do?  What should they work on while they are in college or in another organization waiting for your positions to open up?

Our recruitment mantra is “ Hire for Attitude and Train for Skill” hence a positive attitude to learn and develop into a well-rounded professional is the basis of our recruitment endeavors.

Over the years we have learnt that humility, adaptability, perseverance and tenacity, are the qualities that make a hotel professional successful. We are in the business of providing service and there is no room for ego. “Hands On” professionals do well in the Industry. We need to be ready to accept new ideas and change accordingly. It is a demanding industry, both physically and mentally. Only the “Tough” ones last till the last mile.

The skill development of students happens primarily during the Industrial Training phase, wherein he/she is exposed to hotel shop-floor operations. This experiential learning coupled with the various moments of truth that the student experiences during this phase helps him get a first hand, realistic understanding of the business of hospitality. We have experienced that certain students take up a hospitality career for the “glamour quotient”, which incidentally is only a small facet of the bigger picture.

Prior to taking up a career in the hotel industry, it would be advisable for aspiring students to spend quality time with existing hoteliers, to get an in-depth understanding of the nuances of the industry at large.

It would be advisable for career counselors to conduct site visits for interested students to various domestic and international hotels operating in India. This will give the students a firsthand understanding of the challenges on the shop-floor, thereby setting the right expectations.

Our Management Teams are encouraged to use leadership styles that are ‘enabling’, ‘supporting’, and ‘mentoring’ instead of being ‘dictatorial’. The empowering work culture encourages employees to think freely, ideate and be creative. We promote a work climate which encourages participative management and thus allows employees to participate in running and managing the business.

And this is what we look for in people we want to hire. Agility, perseverance, the willingness to learn and grow and a never say die attitude.

Editor: Please share your Campus Connect initiatives and Management Trainee programs if any.  What are you doing to keep the millennial happy?

The Lemon Tree Hotel Company believes in hiring talent from Hotel Management as well as other Graduate colleges. The North Eastern states have proven to be a potent and perennial source for talent acquisition.

In addition to this, our Executive and Management Training Programs which over a period of eighteen months give us trained Executives and Assistant Managers who are well-versed with the Lemon Tree culture. They keep on funding our ever increasing need for professionals as we keep growing at a considerable rate. These MT’s are selected both through Campus Recruitment and a well structured Internal MT selection process. We also have a “GSE Program”, wherein employees undergo a rigorous six months training and post qualifying become Executives.

We also have a "Engineers in Training Program” which caters to our maintenance and engineering department. It is a highly methodological program which gives in depth theoretical and technical knowledge and is one of a kind in the Industry.

There are various employee development programs, which we have designed keeping in mind the growth that we foresee. We have a full time team of professional trainers who are constantly designing and upgrading customized training programs for various levels of hierarchy.

The “High Potential Program”, identifies trains and develops the top 20% of our high performers in the Company and helps us retain the best talent. The “EAShip Program”, for these Hi-Pots is a structured two week program as part of which they get to intern under a Corporate Function Head and get an overall understanding of how the Company and the Corporate Functions work. The “HGM in Making Program”, is an advanced Career Development Program for Hi-Pots. Individuals identified under this train over a period of nine months to take on leadership roles across our hotels.

Along with this, managing the expectation of the Gen Y has always been a challenge for everyone, more so in the current scenario with different industries attracting talent from the hospitality industry. Being innovative and less concerned with the rigidity of corporate structures, Gen Y needs to see benefits in the job from their perspective. They need to know that they can grow for which we have in-house training programs and a comprehensive, formal mentoring program or the Hi-Pot Program which pairs Gen Y members with more seasoned employees who can help guide their professional development. The HGM encourages an open door policy, wherein s/he frequently communicates with team members, offers feedback, praise and encouragement. Teamwork, one of our core values helps create a connected and more productive environment for these doers. Organizing monthly staff lunches, picnics, fun Fridays with activities involving the teams keep them happy and going.

We are a very young company with our average age being 29 years. New innovative “ideas and experiences” is what is required to keep the morale of our employees high. Led by our CMD, Patu Keswani, we boast of a refreshingly different, fun filled, dynamic and energetic work culture. Employee engagement has been our mantra for success. We believe that if our employees are engaged constructively, high performance will be delivered. And this is driven by our Culture.

Editor: What metrics do you use to measure success in HR?

Our success lies in the success of our people. The Lemon Tree Hotels’ mission states that our foremost focus is “ensuring the well-being and self-worth of our colleagues, who are of the utmost importance to us”. Being in a people’s business, we fully understand that employee happiness will help us achieve employee engagement and thus success in the business.

Our focus has been to “Attract and Retain” Talent, High Performers to be specific. There is a dearth of employable and experienced talent today as domestic and international hotel companies are flooding the market with new inventory. Attrition in and up-to a certain level is desirable. It keeps getting fresher and younger ideology into the industry. Our focus has been to provide a robust succession plan for our high achievers and train and motivate more staff to become high performers.

There are various employee development programs, which we have designed keeping in mind the growth that Lemon Tree Hotels foresee in the near future and to retain our vital talent. At any given point in time, we have about one-third of our manpower, engaged in one or other learning interventions.

And then comes, “Employee Feedback”.

Opportunities are created through interactive, cross functional and cross hierarchical communication forums for people to share ideas and suggestions with the Management. This enhances the self worth of an employee which results in professional and personal gratification.

Participative management is fostered through forums like Fresh Eyes, Engagement Chats and other HR practices. Some include: 

All our General Managers routinely meet atleast one team member every day for a structured and documented discussion termed as “Engagement Chat”. For a progressive organization which aims at continuous improvement, Engagement Chats provide us with valuable and actionable feedback that helps the culture evolve.

We have set up a communication forum called “Fresh Eyes”. As the name suggests, it is a forum wherein all new employees are invited to share their experiences over their first three months with the organization and give their suggestions. Relevant ones, amongst these, are then made focus areas for the Management team.

Feedback shared by employees through the “Great Places To Work” survey and the internal “Employee Connect” survey, also gives us actionable feedback. The action plan derived out of response received is then translated onto the Key Result Areas for the Management team. When the team sees Management acting on their feedback and suggestions, they are encouraged to speak up and add value to the organization’s intellectual capital.

It would be worthwhile to mention here the Feedback received by Guests. The constant high scores on our Guest Feedback Tracking System and Trip Advisor ratings also support the fact that the policies and processes that we follow are churning out good professionals.

Editor: Last but not the least, what would you change about the Industry HR Practices if you could make sweeping changes across the board?

What I’ve learnt over the years is that one can definitely be taught “Skill” but what is required is “Right Attitude”, hence HR Leaders of the years to come should focus on attracting, grooming and skilling employees who have the right attitude towards their job. One has to remember that no one can get a “custom made” employee. An employee’s strengths have to be honed and chiseled continuously and his areas of improvement upgraded to help him/her unlock their hidden potential.

In short, we need to focus on the human perspective and the opportunities it brings with itself. Work can just not be concentrating on making numbers and achieving financials, service excellence through human intervention would go a long way in making the HR practices pan Industry employee friendly which will undoubtedly lead to better business and growth.