Caste at the Workplace: Why Corporates Need to Recognise Caste

Caste and the Workplace: The Need for Corporates to Recognize Caste
Illustration by Christina Spano

Editor’s Note: This research article on the need for corporates to recognise caste at the workplace was rejected by a leading Indian organisation because it was deemed ‘too sensitive’ for its core audience and key stakeholders. The article details how Indian corporations’ need to take a stance on caste issues in 2021, and focuses on the role of caste in internal diversity and inclusivity campaigns. The fact that this piece was turned down and deemed ‘sensitive’ is a testament to how the private sector is not willing to recognize caste in its workspace. Acknowledgment is the first step towards inclusion, and this #reject confirms that the corporeal of the corporate sector is made up of dominant castes, and representation is still a farce.

You can also read this piece in Hindi, translated by Himani here.

Caste and the Corporate

The summer of 2020 witnessed #BlackLivesMatter invades the social and professional spheres of people worldwide. India witnessed celebrities and corporations speaking out on racism against the African-American community 13,000 kms away. These entities soon showed their selective outrage when Hathras highlighted the caste atrocities still prevalent in India. As #DalitLivesMatter took off, activists pleaded to support a cause closer to home, but to no avail. 

India has been plagued with the caste system and its social hierarchy for generations, and while Indian corporates have come around to adopting various social messages, both as part of their branding (with mixed reception) and as part of their CSR mandates, caste has always been a touchy topic. However, if corporations truly seek to be diverse, it’s time they embrace #DalitLivesMatter. 

Caste as an Invisible Identifier: ‘Objective Hiring Practices’

The question of inclusion is linked to the idea of privilege. A cishet male, by virtue of his gender and sex, can access avenues barricaded to non-cis males, women, and people from the LGBTQIA+ community. It is the recognition of this privilege that drives forward conversations on how to do better. Attributes like sex and skin colour are known as visible identifiers while sexual orientation, religion, caste are known as invisible identifiers. 

It’s important to remember that one’s social position (by virtue of caste) often inhibits their social mobility. At a time when hiring practices revolve around command over the English language, degrees from reputed universities, and the confidence one exudes, it’s worth questioning how objective these values are. A 2007 study by Surinder S. Jodhka and Katherine Newman shows how some hiring managers believed upper caste people are more suited for jobs in elite companies. Another study by Ashwini Deshpande and Katherine Newman reports on the time period reserved students expect to find a job post-university compared to non-reserved students. 

According to another study by Paul Attewell and Sukhadeo Thorat, Dalits only had a 67% positive chance of hearing back from employers compared to their upper-caste counterparts, whereas Muslims had a 33% chance for the same. The same study reported on the regional stereotypes and biases around family background and lineage that affect the hiring process. Most Dalit students are hesitant to apply for private jobs because they feel it’s futile to do so, as they lack access to networks and references required to qualify, another article states. 

Caste and Work Culture 

You’ve probably heard of the ‘Old Boys Club’. It negatively affects women at the workplace, and there’s a similar phenomenon that occurs around caste relations and ‘culture fit’. Surnames can be an indicator of caste, and there are instances where employees report that colleagues call each other by their last name, a sign of them being comfortable with their high caste identity. The same comfort cannot be expected from a lower caste person, who may or may not use their surname, out of fear of harassment. Often, discussions on caste and reservations can lead to upper-caste colleagues bashing Dalit employees and the very notion of ‘merit’. 

The Cisco caste lawsuit brought the issue of caste in corporations overseas to the fore. The case revolved around a Dalit employee working in Silicon Valley who was outed by his upper-caste colleagues. What followed was the victim being treated unfairly by an office full of upper-caste workers. When he raised the issue to HR, his complaint was ultimately deemed to be ‘not unlawful’, and this is because companies don’t often include caste as a determinant for discrimination. There are accounts of Dalit employees working overseas who state MNCs, Indian and otherwise, do not recognize caste as a global issue and thus do not prohibit it as grounds for discrimination. While the Cisco lawsuit paves way for discussions on caste, it doesn’t change the fact that for decades caste has gone under the radar, and not been considered to be an important factor. According to a 2018 report by Equality Labs, 67% of Dalits stated that they were treated unfairly at their workplaces. 

Upper Management and Caste: How Does It Affect Promotions? 

‘Wage discrimination and ‘job discrimination’ refer to two phenomena that describe how similarly qualified Dalit employees and upper-caste employees are treated differently. A 2012 study shows that 93% of the Indian corporate board members are from the forward castes. In a similar vein, a 2019 study reveals how most mergers and acquisitions (M&A) occur between directors of the same castes. An excerpt from the study is as follows – 

“One would expect that those Indians who rise to the level of directors of large corporations would be able to shed the biases of caste. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be true. While our research doesn’t point to any caste-based discrimination, it suggests a bias for the familiar. Corporate interactions, knowingly or unknowingly, tend to concentrate toward people of the similar caste group”. 

At a time when upper-management and senior bodies are made up of upper-caste members who, regardless of their views on merit, harbour biases towards Dalits, it becomes difficult for the latter to progress up the social ladder. Going back to how hiring procedures are not objective, command over the English language, being a ‘culture fit’ and showcasing skills that cater to the seniority’s notion of merit all factor into how one goes about getting a promotion. 

How To Do Better: The Ambedkar Principles 

Diversity is good for business. This idea is backed up by McKinsey’s most recent Diversity Wins report. The rationale is simple – individuals from diverse groups grow up with different life experiences and bring a unique viewpoint to the table. How they approach problems and derive solutions varies considerably – something that is well documented in the context of gender. Diversity and inclusion in the workforce at all levels not only serve the purpose of social justice but also boost productivity and social perception.

The Ambedkar Principles are guidelines to address caste discrimination in the private sector. A few of the principles are as follows – 

  1. Evolve comprehensive training opportunities for employees and potential recruits from Dalit communities (preferably integrated with other staff where possible), including language support for English deficient candidates, to enable Dalit workers to fulfill their potential and wherever relevant set targets for the number of Dalit employees. 
  2. Actively seek to place a proportion of supply and/or service contracts with local enterprises from socially excluded communities. By encouraging supplies from Dalit or Muslim-owned firms, the large organized private sector in India could give a huge boost to the micro, medium, and small enterprises owned by marginalized groups. 
  3. Use fair recruitment, selection, and career development processes, with clear objective criteria, and ensure that these processes are open to scrutiny from Dalits themselves as well as other civil society groups. 
  4. Make use of the Dalit Discrimination Check for assessment of caste-based discrimination to identify prevent and remedy discrimination and exploitation of Dalits in the workplace. 

Besides these, corporations in India need to become caste conscious rather than caste blind if anything is to change. The scope of CSR needs to include measures to neutralize the inherent tendencies towards the exclusion of certain communities. Adopting Ambedkar Principles sets corporations on the path to recognition of caste and rectifying inherent biases at work. Additionally, employees hailing from privilege can educate themselves on the appropriate lingo for the workplace, while addressing their Dalit colleagues. HR and D&I managers can start conversations around the same, regarding privilege and the myth of merit. In 2021, it’s time caste becomes a part of diversity and inclusivity mandates.

Aahil Sheikh

Aahil Sheikh

Aahil Sheikh is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science (Hons) from Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi. What makes him a blachksheep is his desire to have conversations that make others uncomfortable, knowing fully well that comfort begets ignorance. He believes that by putting his thoughts, his stance on important, ‘social-taboo’ issues, he can contribute to the uncomfortable conversations we all should have in a greater capacity.


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