Rising above caste and religion in the workplace

Culture  Leadership
27 July, 2020

The role of leaders in creating inclusive teams

Last week, I wrote about creating a culture of belonging – an essential ingredient alongside diversity and inclusion. This week, I dive deeper into how Corporate India can build truly equitable, welcoming workplaces and shed biases about caste and religion.

Before I go any further – race, religion, caste, ethnicity: these are sensitive topics, with different viewpoints. The best way forward is to foster a constructive dialogue, and approach it in the spirit of openness, compassion and learning. With our world becoming increasingly polarised, it’s up to each one of us to not label each other but instead set the right tone. Leaders can truly play a pivotal role in this.

With the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement taking centre stage in the US these past few months, organisations around the world are introspecting how they can do better in terms of diversity, inclusion and equality. These topics are crucial for India as well, where historical inequalities continue to drive present-day social and economic imbalances. In recent years, we are seeing a growing discussion around more equitable representation at the workplaces, but frankly still have a long way to go.

So, this week, my message focuses on biases about caste and religion in Corporate India. How should senior leadership respond to these significant issues? How can you make all of your team members feel safe and included, and bring about meaningful change?  

Common responses from leaders

Given the sensitivity of these issues, corporate leaders often prefer to stay silent and steer clear of controversy. Another typical response is defensiveness, especially for those who are more privileged. You may perceive any criticism of systemic injustice as an attack on yourself – even when this is not the case. There is also a tendency to make broad generalisations. This means speaking about large groups of people in terms like “all of them”, “none of us”, “everyone knows”, etc. Such statements ignore the fact that even within the same social/ethnic group, there is often a great deal of diversity and dissent. We have probably all been guilty of this at one point or another. 

 The role of leadership

In an article focused on US businesses, published in the Harvard Business Review, Laura Roberts and Ella Washington note the importance of corporate leaders engaging with the developments around BLM: 

The psychological impact of these public events – and the way it carries over into the workplace – cannot be overstated. Research shows that how organisations respond to large-scale, diversity-related events…can either help team members feel psychologically safe or contribute to racial identity threat and mistrust of institutions of authority. Without adequate support, minority team members are likely to perceive their environments as more interpersonally and institutionally biased against them. Leaders seeking to create an inclusive environment for everyone must find ways to address these topics.

This observation is equally valid for India. Moreover, we must examine how biases around caste and religion affect whom we choose to hire, promote and put in the spotlight. Keep in mind that bias can operate at an unconscious level as well. Hence, even with the best of intentions, it is possible to be swayed by deep-seated prejudices and preferences.   

Bias in Corporate India

At a basic level, these biases influence who gets called for an interview, who is offered the job, and who gets promoted. For example, a study, back from 2007, that focused on the application-sorting stage found that: 

Statistically…applications that had high-caste Hindu names were more likely to result in a favourable job outcome than those with Muslim or Dalit names, despite their identical qualifications. The odds of a Dalit being invited for an interview were about two-thirds of the odds of a high-caste Hindu applicant. The odds of a Muslim applicant being invited for an interview were about one-third of the odds of a high-caste Hindu applicant.

Even merit, which so many companies emphasise, is shaped by things like how a person speaks, their body language or their “family background” – factors that are linked to where you stand in the social/ethnic hierarchy. Even if someone from a disadvantaged community is hired, the problems often continue, with dominant group members side-lining the person due to implicit or overt bias.

Another study showed a lack of diversity at the top: when considering the boards of 1,000 top Indian businesses, the median score was zero. Of these, 93% of members belonged to privileged castes. Whether we recognise it or not, the old biases still hold sway. In their IIM-Bangalore study, Professors Manaswini Bhalla and Manisha Goel were surprised by the prevalence of caste influence in corporates: 

Many urban Indians assume that the obsession of caste is a domain of the rural and semi-urban areas. As individuals who grew up in a big cosmopolitan city, when we observed in our research that caste and its influence is alive and kicking even in elite corporate India, we too were surprised.

Considering 1,200 deals over a seven-year period, the researchers found that a huge percentage of mergers and acquisitions in India take place between businesses whose directors belong to the same caste group. This is not a coincidence: companies intentionally pursue targets with the same caste identity. You might think, so what? If it works for everyone, what’s the harm? Ironically, these deals actually dilute shareholder value and competitiveness: 

We find that stock markets penalise mergers between firms of the same caste; the values generated for both acquirer and target in same-caste deals are lower than in other deals…. Further, if we look at the merged firms’ performance one or two years after the deal, we find that in fact they do slightly worse than firms that did not do same-caste deals.

With growing awareness of these various issues, Corporate India has seen a push for diversity and inclusion. Led by bodies like the CII and FICCI, some Indian organisations have started soul-searching and taking steps to correct these inherent imbalances.

Even with the best of intentions, it is possible to be swayed by deep-seated prejudices and preferences. Hence, we must examine how biases around caste and religion affect whom we choose to hire, promote and put in the spotlight.

The way forward for leaders

As a leader, you are responsible for the wellbeing of all your team members, including minorities and disadvantaged groups. Here are three recommendations:

1. Acknowledge the issue

The first step is to break the default silence and engage with the issue. You may not have the perfect words, but it’s important to do it anyway. A good way to begin is by expressing solidarity. For example, in response to BLM, Citigroup CEO Mike Corbat issued a memo to reinforce the company’s commitment to their black team members – without presuming to know how they felt: 

I want you to know that your colleagues and I will always stand with you. While I can try to empathise with what it must be like to be a black person in America, I haven’t walked in those shoes.

(By the way, Corbat also encouraged team members to take a “personal day” on 19 June – a day that commemorates the emancipation of African Americans, but is not recognised as a national holiday in the US.) 

Apart from formal messages, convey care at a personal level. The HBR article mentioned above notes the emotional toll faced by communities under stress, highlighting a message that went viral on social media recently:

There are black men and women in Zoom meetings maintaining ‘professionalism,’ biting their tongues, holding back tears and swallowing rage, while we endure attacks from a pandemic and police. Understand and be mindful.

2. Commit to awareness

Tackling systemic inequalities requires a commitment to learn, especially if you belong to an advantaged group. Don’t expect colleagues from affected communities to educate you. Rather, take charge of your own learning. Go beyond the social media and WhatsApp buzz, and do your research using reliable resources. Seek out the facts and understand the various ways in which bias operates. This knowledge will also make it easier for you to have those difficult conversations.

3. Foster an ongoing dialogue

One aspect of inclusion is inviting people to share their feelings around these topics. Explicitly state your commitment to creating a safer and more equitable work environment, and make sure your team members know that your door is always open. Remember, don’t force anyone to open up; some people may welcome the opportunity to talk, while others may choose not to. You could also create a space to offer ongoing opportunities for conversation, reflection and growth, such as a recurring meeting or an online discussion group.

Organisational commitments

It’s not enough to have a vision and mission that ticks all the right boxes. Organisations must also enact meaningful changes to facilitate a safe working environment and a level playing field. Here are three suggestions for Indian businesses to consider:

1. Better representation

Companies should make it a priority to reflect the multitude of communities that inhabit India – from increasing diversity within the workforce, to sourcing from vendors owned by marginalised communities. It’s also vital to ensure equitable representation at the table while making key policy decisions.

2. Quick action

In his HBR article on corporate commitments to tackle racism, Mark Kramer strongly advises a no-tolerance policy for racism. He gives the example of Franklin Templeton, which swiftly terminated Amy Cooper after her racist interaction with Christian Cooper. When it comes to unambiguous discrimination, don’t beat around the bush: act quickly and decisively.

3. Integration programme

Sometimes candidates from disadvantaged groups don’t get hired because of a gap in their language and soft skills – a legacy of the country’ public education system. Not only is this unfair to the individual, it also means the business loses out of bright, talented people. You can address this problem is by creating an on-the-job integration programme that focuses on building these skills.

I hope that we dig deeper, exchange opinions and take action to shed these biases from the workplace.


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