Differently abled persons, or Opportunity Deprived Indians, are employed by industry, not by all, but by some who are conscientious employers, like Lemon Tree Hotels. I was not aware of their stupendous work till I met Mr. Rajesh Kumar, Lemon Tree Hotel’s Senior Vice President HR. Here is his interview:
Vivek’s World (VW) When did you join Lemon Tree Hotels? Did this project of employing differently abled persons exist before you joined or after?
Rajesh Kumar (RK) We started recruiting speech and hearing impaired (SHI) employees in 2007 and I joined the company in 2008. Lemon Tree Hotels has been hiring ODIs (Opportunity Deprived Indians) that is, citizens who do not have access to opportunities to grow and prosper in life. ODIs include Employees with Disability (EwD) and the Economically/Socially marginalized segment (EcoSoc). Our goal is to mainstream ODIs (Opportunity Deprived Indians) into our workforce, and help them to lead their lives with dignity. But before that too Lemon Tree had recruited and trained differently abled persons.
VW Really? Tell me about it.
RK In October 2019, we enrolled twenty-two girls and boys from different care homes in Delhi. We coordinated with Delhi Government Women Care & Development. These children were below the age of eighteen and our endeavour was to train them before they turn eighteen, so that they can start earning their livelihood with dignity once they are out of care homes.
In that batch we hired 25 such children (22 girls and 3 boys) under the Apprentices Act, 1961. It was an inclusive group and comprised of Orphaned children/juveniles, Rescued girls staying at after care homes, Abandoned children from accident sites, One SHI (speech and hearing impaired), One person with locomotor disability, and a dwarf.
After their training, a few of them are now working with us as permanent associates. This year, we on-boarded 15 girls, and most of them are working at our hotel in Aerocity. The idea behind this training is to and prepare them for the industry and absorb them as associates in our entry level roles.
VW So, it has been fourteen years since Lemon Tree Hotels implemented this path breaking initiative. How many You must have employed and trained so far?
RK In the past 14 years, over 2500 ODIs (Opportunity Deprived Indians) have trained at our company/continue to work with us. Today 10% of the employee base are ODIs, out of them 12% are ladies. Our goal is to take our ODI percentage up to 30% by FY26. Total ODIs in the company today are 590 out of which 350 are differently abled and 240 are from economically and socially marginalized segments.
VW And you pay them same of differential salary?
RK It is equivalent to other employees. Timely increments happen for them at par with other employees in the system. There is no difference in the remuneration process, as they are as much a part of the Lemon Tree family as all other employees.
VW Was hiring them a challenge?
RK Hiring people with disabilities was never a challenge. The only challenge was to make them comfortable at the work place and sensitize other team members. For this, we took the help of our NGO partners and ensured that our employees (especially supervisory level employees) are trained in ISL (Indian sign Language). Our other employees feel proud to work with the organization that is helping Opportunity Deprived Indians (ODIs) to grow. Currently we have 67 women working in the ODI category.
VW This is really great work, and I am happy to have met you. I would not have known about it otherwise. What is the impact on the organization?
RK It has increased creativity of the team. There is so much validation received from both our employees and our guests, who applaud our initiative and our commitment to humanity at large. Our employees laud our efforts through our internal and external engagement surveys. Our guests say the same through Tripadvisor and other feedback forums, and often stay with us repeatedly because of their appreciation of this initiative and because they feel that by staying with us, they are also contributing to this cause.
VW How do customers behave with them?
RK Customers feel happy when they are served by them, and share very good feedback. They also ask questions how we have trained them. It builds awareness of the different types of disability, and how persons with disabilities can effectively be trained, skilled and mainstreamed into the industry. We have never received any complaints from any guest. General service complaints happen at times. But those are for all employees and related to a service, not for an individual basis their ability/disability.
VW Let me go back to my first question. What made Lemon Tree Hotels undertake this initiative? There are always stories behind such projects.
RK This project started in 2007 when our Chairman and Managing Director, Mr. Patanjali G. Keswani asked the team to start hiring people with Speech and Hearing Impairment (SHI). Accordingly, we hired the first batch of seven employees. After approximately 18 months, a lady came to our corporate office. She asked to meet with our Chairman, with a bouquet in her hand and tears in her eyes. She met and thanked Mr. Keswani and told him that because of his initiative her son had been working at a good job, and was now getting married. This is how this project started.
We never knew that this initiative would change people’s lives the way it did. From then, we started hiring differently abled people at every location. We also started hiring people with Autism and Intellectual and Developmental Disability (IDD) that is, Down syndrome, Slow Learner, and Mild MR. In their case, we reversed the ‘hire and then train’ model used for candidates with physical disabilities to a ‘train and then hire’ model. Following the response we got, we have started hiring people from economically and socially marginalized segments as well.
VW Splendid work! Congratulations to you and to everybody at Lemon Tree Hotels. The Opportunity Deprived Indians have surely met their Kalp-Vriksha, the wish-fulfilling divine tree in Lemon Tree Hotels.
NOTE: This is NOT a paid assignment and blog. I liked this initiative so I have posted this interview.
Vivek S Patwardhan
Pic Courtesy: Lemon Tree Hotels, Audi Nissen on Unsplash
“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”