The caste system in South Asian societies is one of the oldest and most institutionalized forms of discrimination. A recent episode of NPR’s Planet Money, Caste Arrives in Silicon Valley, addresses how caste discrimination is affecting some Indian employees of big U.S. tech companies. The ancient hierarchy often associated with India seems to be alive and well in workplaces here in the United States.
The majority of South Asians working in the U.S. are from dominant castes – as they are often the ones with the resources and access to do so. Those who are oppressed fear revealing their caste due to retaliation and discrimination, which, unfortunately, can be common within the workplace. For many, their H-1B visas are also at stake. Meaning, if they lose their job, they will have to leave the states.
Combatting deep and pervasive patterns in any culture or society is difficult, and discrimination can occur based on many factors aside from a person’s caste. Discrimination involves making distinctions between human beings based on factors that we cannot control – age, gender, race, national origin, mental or physical ability.
A Harmless Question
One of the ways that discrimination takes place is through interview questions. What is the harm in a question? Behind the discretion of a question can lie bias, manipulation, and even malice, which is exaggerated when a power differential is in place. Questions might appear to be harmless or voluntary, while underneath, they contain a venom that erodes culture, safety, and acceptance.
For example, though it is not uncommon to be asked, “Where are you from?” or “What part of town do you live in?” these kinds of questions invite bias. Location often carries unspoken implications, and these questions can serve as a tool for sizing someone up – using an unfair and biased benchmark. In U.S. tech companies, these are the very questions used as a tactic for revealing a fellow employee’s caste. We also see this in the way people of color are sometimes required to take extra steps to prove their identity or answer unnecessary questions to carry out ordinary banking transactions. “Currently, it is legal for banks and some other businesses to treat some customers differently as long as those customers eventually receive the services they are seeking” (Flitter 2020).
All this holds for companies’ hiring processes as well. The primary tool that we use to vet candidates – interviews – involves a lot of questions. While not all questions are overtly manipulative and pointed, our unique set of expertise and experiences coupled with our unconscious biases prevent us from being the objective evaluator we might think we are.
Checks and Balances
Indian employees interviewed by NPR say it is not enough for companies to raise awareness of caste discrimination. They need to be proactive, making sure they are diversifying their employees and increasing hiring from oppressed groups.
Tools can be put in place, like structured interviewing, to control the types of questions that interviewers ask to prevent bias from creeping into the equation and allowing discrimination to influence hiring decisions in our workplaces. Great talent leaders should take time to learn more about what a structured interview looks like and how it can help eliminate the opportunity for the wrong kinds of questions to arise when assessing candidates.