* ‘Pre Script’ : Instead of using the terms ‘upper-caste’ and ‘lower-caste’ which signal hierarchy, I have chosen to use the phrases ‘privileged castes’ and ‘oppressed castes’ respectively.
The caste system, a deep-rooted social hierarchy in South Asia continues to be a pervasive issue that permeates all aspects of society and culture, including the workplace.
The insidious nature of caste has not just remained confined to India but has been carried across borders by the diaspora1. Thus, perpetuating its harmful effects in global workplaces as well, as seen in Cisco caste discrimination case in California and Google cancelling Equality Labs’ executive director Thenmozhi Soundararajan talk on Caste and DEI in April, which was the Dalit History Month.
The toxic influence of casteism tends to begin right from the initial step of recruitment, where individuals are evaluated, screened based on the surnames on their resume. The candidates are evaluated not solely on their qualifications, abilities or years of experience but also on their caste affiliations. These pre-screening techniques based on caste are not explicit or done consciously, but these are veiled in implicit biases and are part of systemic caste discrimination.
To understand how caste manifests itself in the recruitment process, we must delve into its historical context, implicit biases, networks, identity politics, corporate culture and the pressing need for change.
A Lived reality
Mahesh Raj*, a 29-year-old Dalit professional working within the Human Resources department of one of the top four consulting firms, recently shared his observations with me regarding a glaring oversight in modern-day recruitment practices. While contemporary recruiters undergo training to ensure accommodations for individuals with disabilities, sensitivity to gender diversity, and awareness of ageism bias, there remains a conspicuous absence in discussions and training programs addressing caste-based biases in the hiring process.
For context, the caste system traces its origin back over two millennia and has been the cornerstone of social stratification in India. It categorises individuals into hierarchical groups, dictating not only their social standing but also their occupations, access to resources, education and opportunities.
Hence, caste-based discrimination has systematically denied the Dalits (communties listed under Scheduled Castes) and Bahujans (communities listed under Other Backward Classes) access to socio-economic mobility, perpetuating social disparities. And that’s why the ‘merit’ argument does not hold any relevance in a country so reified by the caste system, because the starting point of different caste communities is unequal and different.
While Western corporates have made significant strides in tackling issues like racism, misogyny, and other intersectional struggles stemming from their unique socio-cultural contexts, Indian corporates, in general, have made little to no concerted effort to address the deeply rooted issue of casteism. The problem here is that people refuse to see the elephant in the room, the ignorance can be measured when you often hear terms like ‘caste doesn’t exist’, ‘caste only exists in villages not in metros’. Not only are these seemingly innocuous statements underscore a troubling lack of awareness, it also shows the unwillingness of corporates to confront the uncomfortable presence of caste in their workplaces.
The subtle manifestations hit harder
Aditi Singh*, a software engineer at a multinational tech firm, mentions that while caste isn't always explicitly recognised, its subtle yet persistent manifestations are undeniable. In our dialogues, she shared an intriguing observation regarding her surname, which doesn't distinctly disclose her caste origins from Bihar. During casual lunch breaks and team gatherings, Aditi found herself fielding many inquiries from colleagues keen on knowing her caste, a phenomenon she termed as 'caste anxiety'.
Initially, she brushed off these questions as an innocuous curiosity. However, as time progressed, a pattern emerged that was hard to ignore.
Despite her exemplary track record and technical skills, Aditi found herself continually overlooked for challenging assignments and client-centric roles, while her privileged-caste colleagues seemingly advanced effortlessly. The situation came to a head during an annual performance appraisal, where her manager, under the vague pretexts of "cultural fit" and "team dynamics," advised her to "enhance her interpersonal skills" for further advancement. The feedback was a stark departure from the accolades and promotions bestowed upon her privileged-caste peers, whose interpersonal skills were comparable or even inferior to hers.
Overcoming implicit biases
One way implicit bias manifests in hiring is through familiarity and social networks; recruiters may unknowingly favour candidates from their own caste locations or those within their own social circles. The constant rhetoric of finding a ‘cultural fit’ is inherently problematic.
The complex issue of caste bias became very clear during my chat with Amrita Patil, a lively marketing person from an oppressed caste background. She had recently joined a well-known marketing company in Mumbai, where most employees were from privileged caste backgrounds. Amrita*, who had a strong educational and creative background, was hopeful about doing well in her new job. However, with time, she noticed her boss seemed to favour her colleague Vikram, who came from a privileged caste and a reputable school often associated with his caste. Vikram was often praised for his smooth talk and friendly client meetings, even though his ideas lacked freshness and deep analysis, which appeared to be overlooked because of his caste location.
On the flip side, Amrita sensed a persistent scepticism from her boss towards her ideas, despite them being innovative and strongly supported by data. Each presentation she made seemed to be met with an underlying bias, casting doubt on her market insight. This bias glaringly manifested during a pivotal client meeting. Amrita's data-centric campaign significantly outperformed Vikram's traditional approach. However, in the subsequent team review, her boss extolled Vikram for his "impressive client interaction," while relegating Amrita's contributions to mere "team effort." To add insult to injury, he remarked, ‘you should be happy that people from your caste are working with prestigious companies like ours.’ (Appko kush hona chaihye ke appke jaat ke log hamare iss bade company mein kaam kar reho - in Hindi). This destroyed her sense of self and she quit the company soon after.
A study conducted by Dr. Zahra Siddique confirms the existence of caste-based disparities in callback rates, with oppressed-caste applicants needing to send a significantly higher number of resumes to secure callbacks compared to privileged-caste applicants. An intriguing finding of the study is that differences in callback rates favouring privileged-caste applicants are particularly pronounced when hiring is conducted by male recruiters or by those who identify as belonging to Hinduism. This observation suggests that caste biases are not solely rooted in statistical discrimination but also have socio-cultural dimensions.
Caste superiority is a manifestation of casteism. Time and again, conversations including on social media have normalised the idea that caste is an important determinant of success in the business world. One such stereotype is Marwari community members ‘being naturally good at business’. It reinforces the myth of “model minority” and ignores the systemic inequalities that prevent marginalised castes from achieving success. Not only is such a narrow view of success and meritocracy harmful but also reinforces the stereotype of Marwaris as shrewd businessmen, reducing them to a caricature.
The role companies can play
Addressing casteism in recruitment necessitates a blend of acknowledgment and actionable strategies. The preliminary step is recognising the prevalence of caste discrimination and understanding its ramifications on workplace diversity and inclusivity.
Companies should introduce regular diversity and inclusion training to sensitise employees and recruiters about caste biases and their adverse impacts on organisational culture and performance. Implementing anonymous recruitment processes, where personal details that might reveal caste are omitted, can also significantly reduce biases during the recruitment process.
Implementing affirmative action policies lays down a structured pathway for ensuring fair representation of oppressed castes in the workforce. Esteemed organisations like Tata have already showcased the successful testament of this initiative, setting a viable precedent for others to follow.
To sustain and build upon these initiatives, creating safe and anonymous channels for reporting caste-based discrimination is crucial, as it empowers individuals to report incidents without fear of retaliation. Regular monitoring and evaluation of recruitment processes and workplace policies are essential to identify areas of improvement and ensure the effectiveness of inclusion strategies.
By embracing a more inclusive recruitment strategy and remaining vigilant against ingrained caste biases, corporations can work effectively towards dismantling casteism, thereby cultivating a more equitable and inclusive workplace culture. The journey to eradicate caste bias in recruitment is an ongoing endeavour that necessitates a unified commitment from employers, employees, and, notably, the leadership, to foster a more inclusive corporate environment.
* The author is not a member of the community directly affected by casteism, and he does not presume to speak on their behalf. This article is written with the intention of shedding light on the issue, fostering understanding, and promoting conversations surrounding caste-based discrimination. The author recognises and acknowledges that the experiences and voices of those directly impacted are of utmost significance and should be centered in discussions on this matter.