As globalization and workforce mobility make many organizations more multicultural, managers find themselves having to broaden their understanding of workplace discrimination’s possible forms. In particular, issues of bias related to caste identity are making headlines around the world more frequently, and maintaining a healthy and productive culture will require leaders to be able to identify, prevent, and mitigate caste-based discrimination.
The caste system is a sociocultural-economic hierarchy that is pervasive in South Asia and the sizable South Asian diaspora all over the world. An individual’s caste, inherited from their father, is determined solely by their birth and is unchangeable.
Numerous incidents of caste-based bias in Silicon Valley and elsewhere have been documented in the media. Studies conducted by academics, governments, and advocacy organizations have found that caste discrimination is prevalent in countries with significant South Asian populations, including the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and Australia.1
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Within South Asia, which is home to a quarter of the world’s population, caste bias can have disastrous consequences for individuals and organizations. For example, in June 2023, Vivek Raj, an employee of Indian fashion retailer Lifestyle International, died by suicide after recording a statement alleging workplace caste discrimination. In another case, Indian food delivery company Zomato faced public backlash for a 2023 advertisement that reinforced derogatory caste stereotypes.
Multinational companies, such as Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Dell, and X (formerly Twitter), have recognized the importance of this issue by addressing caste-based discrimination in their corporate policies. Over 20 U.S. universities have also included caste as a protected category in their policies, alongside race, gender, religion, and others.
In February 2023, the city of Seattle passed a law to outlaw caste discrimination. A similar bill was passed by California’s legislature but was vetoed in October 2023 by its governor, who said that caste-based discrimination was already prohibited under the state’s existing laws. These legislative efforts are in line with laws in countries that have caste systems, such as India, whose constitution outlaws caste discrimination and guarantees affirmative action for low-caste individuals in public education, employment, and political offices.
Managers everywhere need to understand these issues to help protect employees of South Asian origin from caste-based discrimination, bullying, incivility, and harassment, and to avoid the legal jeopardy that can result from such acts in the workplace. Managers could also improve the well-being and performance of individuals and their organizations by addressing the influence of caste on activities such as hiring, corporate social responsibility, information sharing, and networking.2
What Is Caste, and Why Is It Relevant?
The fundamental assumption underlying the caste system is the notion that humans are created as unequal groups. This inequality is manifested by arbitrarily assigning different levels of purity and value to groups of people on an artificially defined hierarchy that gives some of them socially enforced rights and privileges, including the right to practice certain sets of occupations.
The fundamental assumption underlying the caste system is the notion that humans are created as unequal groups.
Caste is a complex system comprising thousands of groups and subgroups across religions. Broadly speaking, among those who practice Hinduism, Brahmins are at the top of the hierarchy. Their occupations have traditionally included religious duties and knowledge professions like recordkeeping, science, and education. Next in the hierarchy are Kshatriyas (who have traditionally occupied military roles), followed by Vysyas (businesspeople and traders) and Shudras (workers and laborers). Similar groups and subgroups are found among those practicing other religions. For instance, among South Asian Muslims, there are high castes (Ashraf, consisting of the Saiads, Sheikhs, Pathans, and Mughals) and low castes (Ajlaf, consisting of artisans and other workers). Among those who practice Sikhism, there are high-caste groups like the Jatts and Khatris. Similarly, South Asian Christian congregations have formed around distinct caste-based identities.
Dalits are outside of, and well below, the above groups. They are considered by those following the norms of the caste system as inferior and impure to the point of being subhuman and are relegated to occupations that involve activities like cleaning up excrement and disposing of the dead. Dalits, found across religions, are stigmatized as “untouchable” due to the historic, and still prevalent, practice of other castes avoiding physical contact and spatial proximity with them.
Adivasis (meaning first inhabitants or, more generally, indigenous peoples) are another group outside the caste system who have historically lived in forest or hill areas remote from urban locations and have often been stigmatized as outlaws.
Although individuals from each group today engage in occupations other than those assigned to them by caste, an individual’s caste remains a significant determinant of the social and professional opportunities available to them.3
How Caste Shapes Organizations
Caste can shape an organization’s internal environment in a few different ways. The talent pool from which a company hires might not have caste diversity due partly to differences in access to education and other resources that have persisted for generations. Caste determines access to capital and valuable business connections. Research has shown that family firms rely on caste-based networks to share knowledge and resources and exert control over markets and industries.4 Value chains that pass through South Asia replicate caste hierarchies such that high-caste individuals control important activities in the chain (such as design, research, and marketing) while low-caste individuals are relegated to activities valued less (such as product assembly and manufacturing).5 The disproportionate control of institutions like educational, regulatory, legislative, and industry bodies by high-caste individuals also shapes the environment in which organizations operate.
Caste impacts the functioning of organizations as well. Recruiters and managers are likely to introduce biases into decisions about hiring and promotion, even at the level of the C-suite. Such biases might be explicit, such as through stereotyping individuals of certain caste backgrounds; or implicit, in the weight placed on markers such as speaking English with a familiar accent or observing certain social etiquette, even when they’re not relevant to the job. Caste stereotypes can also affect the assignment of jobs, such as when high-caste individuals get promoted to managerial roles while low-caste individuals are relegated to low-end jobs, like data entry and coding in the IT sector or cleaning jobs across sectors.
Caste also tends to impact workplace interactions; for example, low-caste individuals might experience harassment, bullying, and incivility through behaviors like name-calling or exclusion, or be subjected to unsafe or demeaning work conditions. In one study on caste-based discrimination in the U.S., 25% of Dalit respondents reported having faced physical or verbal assault; 67% said they had been treated unfairly at work, and 60% reported experiencing caste-based derogatory comments and jokes.6
Why Caste Poses Unique Challenges
Caste predominantly operates indirectly, in the form of identity, resources, networks, and culture. A person’s caste is not evident from their physiological features but can be inferred based on those four dimensions and shape their perceived merit. That perception of merit, rather than their caste, can then be claimed as the basis for decisions and actions affecting them. (See “The Indirect Markers of Caste.”) Here’s how caste manifests in each of these dimensions.
Identity. For many people from South Asia, caste is an inalienable part of one’s identity. Inherited by birth, caste is seen as a symbol of one’s ancestry. Caste identity is further reinforced through practices such as endogamy (marrying within one’s caste), which is intended to maintain caste purity. Nearly 95% of marriages among Indians, including Indian-origin people in the U.S., occur within the same caste.7 Even a dating app for South Asians that a U.S. company developed allows users to filter for high-caste groups to find matches. Several other matchmaking service providers also facilitate marriages within castes.
An individual’s caste identity is often reflected in their name. Many South Asian surnames (such as Bhatia, Kamble, Khan, Sharma, and Yadav) can be markers of caste. South Asians who do not have a caste-revealing name can face probing questions and exclusion, because caste identity shapes resource availability, networks, and cultural affinity.
Resources. Tangible resources, such as cash, assets, and investments, are unequally distributed along caste lines. Due to historical differences in rights and opportunities to own and accumulate assets among castes, such inequalities have compounded over generations. Research has found that in India, high-caste individuals are overly represented among the top 50% of wealthy individuals, accounting for 90% of the total wealth, while low-caste individuals have a much higher representation in the bottom 50% of individuals in terms of wealth.8
Members of high-caste communities often have systemically greater access to economic capital and the advantages that come with it, such as the ability to attend elite private schools, which affords them greater access to knowledge professions. For instance, only 6% of the faculty at the Indian Institutes of Management (premier business schools established by the Indian government) are from the low castes that account for the vast majority (69%, according to one estimate) of the Indian population. A similar situation exists in other higher education institutions.
These differences in resources also affect who can emigrate from South Asia, with high-caste individuals finding it easier to migrate to and get settled in their host countries. For example, nearly 90% of U.S. residents of Indian origin are from high castes.9
Networks. Caste forms the basis of formal and informal social networks that facilitate economic transactions. Members of one caste are more likely to hire, do business with, and lend financial and nonfinancial support to people from similar caste backgrounds. The long-standing practice of marrying within a caste is one way these networks are formed.
Caste also shapes networks via other forms of spatial and social segregation. Studies have shown the existence of caste-based segregation in many cities in India due in part to historic factors that allowed each caste to reside in a specific part of the city or town and partly due to individuals’ preference to live next to people of their own caste.10 Social segregation occurs because of how caste norms shape interactions between castes. For instance, high-caste individuals adhering to such norms might avoid sharing space or a meal with Dalits.
Formal and informal caste-based associations exist both within South Asia and globally. Such associations can be explicitly caste-based, such as the Brahman Samaj of North America, which is open to all Brahmins, and Pravara Vedika, open only to certain Brahmin subgroups. Some associations represent themselves as broader “community” or linguistic/cultural organizations but are dominated by certain high castes. For example, the Telugu Association of North America is dominated by the Kamma, a high-caste group that actively supports its caste kin; the North American Telugu Association is dominated by the Reddy high-caste group; and the NRI Vasavi Association predominantly comprises members of the Vysya community.11
Culture. The dominant culture and norms of a particular South Asian religion or region are often defined in terms of the high-caste culture, even when it is practiced by a numerical minority of the population. These are most often reflected in people’s religious and cultural practices, diets, and spoken languages, which vary by caste. For example, high-caste groups have a hegemony on certain forms of “classical” music and dance because low-caste groups have been excluded from practicing them. These arts are considered superior to folk music and dances practiced by low-caste individuals. Because high-caste individuals have migrated abroad at a higher rate than those from low castes, these cultural artifacts are often perceived as typical of South Asian culture.
The common misconception in high-income countries that most Indians are vegetarian is another example of high-caste culture defining the norm abroad. Several organizations and higher education institutions in India adhere to vegetarian menus or have separate kitchens and dining spaces for vegetarians, leading to the segregation, stigmatization, and exclusion of low-caste individuals. Perceptions of South Asian culture are reinforced by the widespread representation of high-caste culture in popular media, including film, TV, and music. Because low-caste individuals do not always fit these profiles, non-South Asian managers might unwittingly treat lower-caste individuals differently as well.
What Managers Can Do About Caste Discrimination
Caste can be inferred from how it manifests as identity, resources, networks, and culture. For managers of South Asian origin, many signals are visible (such as last names or diet) or can be learned through social interactions (such as location of residence or ancestral occupations) and used in organizational decision-making. For example, research has shown that when the resumes of two candidates of the same profile are presented, high-caste individuals are selected over low-caste individuals based only on the status associated with their last names.12
However, non-South Asian managers can have difficulty discerning cultural cues to caste identity, and since it is a sensitive topic, inquiring about a person’s caste is not appropriate. Low-caste individuals might choose to hide their caste to fit in and avoid exclusion. What, then, can managers do to create a caste-inclusive environment in their organizations?
To successfully address the challenges of caste, managers need to take a holistic approach that includes making caste a part of organizational diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies and practices, raising awareness through training, and addressing caste inequalities in societies where they are systemic. (See “How Organizations Can Address Caste.”) Managers should also take steps to preempt resistance as these efforts get underway.
Explicitly identify caste as a protected category. DEI policies aim to promote inclusion for people of all identities, and a first step is to explicitly identify caste as a protected category. This recognition should cover all relevant company policies, including those related to the conduct of employees and suppliers, corporate communications, and employee hiring. Companies can explicitly state in their employee conduct policies that caste discrimination will not be tolerated, as Apple and Cisco have done, and implement protocols to comprehensively address reports of caste discrimination in the workplace. Companies can also include caste in their supplier code of conduct (as Canadian retailer Loblaw has done) to ensure that caste is a protected category throughout their value chains and that suppliers do not alienate or discriminate against low-caste individuals.
DEI policies aim to promote inclusion for people of all identities, and a first step is to explicitly identify caste as a protected category.
Policies around company communications and social media messaging should also include guidance on caste-inclusive language. For example, Dell Technologies’ global social media policy notes that caste-based hate speech is not tolerated. Companies that host user-generated content should expand their terms of service to prohibit caste-related discriminatory language and slurs, as Meta, X, and YouTube have done, and moderate content that promotes caste indirectly. To develop such policies, organizations can partner with advocacy groups such as the International Dalit Solidarity Network, which has released studies on caste-based hate speech.
Existing practices for inclusive hiring can be adapted for caste with relative ease. Anonymizing applicants’ resumes can eliminate some signals of caste from the recruitment process. Employers can instruct hiring managers to disregard candidate characteristics that are not salient to the job, such as accent, etiquette, status of educational institutions attended, and family background. Companies, especially those with subsidiaries in South Asia, must proactively diversify their pool of applicants through targeted referrals or recruiting drives directed at low-caste candidates. These individuals account for the vast majority of the population, and failing to reach them means overlooking a huge talent pool. Structured and standardized interviews that more accurately evaluate candidates based on job-relevant skills can minimize bias at the interview stage and combat caste prejudices in hiring.
Increase awareness and training. Given that caste is an invisible inequality, raising awareness about it is one of the most important aspects of addressing caste discrimination. This training should be aimed at preventing caste discrimination, creating a caste-inclusive environment, and understanding the effects of caste privilege and oppression.
Given that caste is an invisible inequality, raising awareness about it is one of the most important aspects of addressing caste discrimination.
Training on caste needs to address the forms of discrimination that low-caste individuals commonly experience, including slurs, jokes, and derogatory comments about them and their leaders. For example, low-caste individuals from India, which has caste-based affirmative action policies, are often at the receiving end of derogatory remarks, such as “quota candidate” or “reservation people,” that demean the use of these policies. The training should also extend to supporting employees who face such discrimination.
Managers should be coached on creating a caste-inclusive environment in their teams. This could include raising awareness about the many ways in which caste discrimination might appear and signaling the inappropriateness of caste-sensitive topics in workplace discussions. Further, without violating the privacy of individuals, companies can collect self-disclosed data on individuals’ caste or conduct caste audits (for example, using last names as caste indicators) to understand the caste homogeneity/diversity in their organizations and make employees aware of its implications for organizational functioning and performance.
Tackle caste discrimination at its root. Organizations can work on addressing caste not just internally but within the countries where the caste system is prevalent. Directly funding education and development initiatives in India, Nepal, or Pakistan, for example, can improve access to education for individuals from low-caste backgrounds. Mentoring individuals and groups from lower castes can also help minimize the barriers they face to enter an industry or a profession. Companies can make their support of nongovernmental organizations and charitable organizations (including community and cultural organizations) conditional on their being caste-inclusive in their operations.
Preempt resistance to addressing caste. Organizations that attempt to address caste are likely to face resistance. Google canceled a talk on caste by Thenmozhi Soundararajan of Equality Labs in 2022 after some of its employees objected to it, and legislative efforts to address caste in the U.S have faced stiff resistance from some Hindu lobbying groups. These groups often argue that caste is an issue of the past or not an issue outside of South Asia and that policies protecting caste could be misused to discriminate against people of Hindu faith or Indian ethnicity. Understanding these sources of resistance to addressing caste can help organizations design ways to overcome them and secure buy-in from all employees and other stakeholders, including via external communications that encourage broad-based support for caste equity.
Caste is a complex and difficult issue, but addressing it is both an instrumental and moral imperative for organizations around the world. Doing so contributes to more equitable outcomes for individuals and affirms organizational commitment to cocreating a fairer and more equal society for all.
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2. H. Bapuji, R.A. Kamble, and R. Kumar, “Unrecognized, but Corrosive: Caste Inequalities in Global Workplaces and Employee Well-Being,” The Journal of Total Rewards 31, no. 1 (Q1 2022): 45-55; and H. Bapuji, S. Chrispal, B. Vissa, et al., “Local, Yet Global: Implications of Caste for MNEs and International Business,” Journal of International Business Policy 6, no. 2 (June 2023): 201-234.
3. H. Bapuji and S. Chrispal, “Understanding Economic Inequality Through the Lens of Caste,” Journal of Business Ethics 162, no. 3 (March 2020): 533-551.
4. D. Mani and R. Durand, “Family Firms in the Ownership Network: Clustering, Bridging, and Embeddedness,” Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice 43, no. 2 (March 2019): 330-351.
5. V. Soundararajan, G. Sharma, and H. Bapuji, “Caste, Social Capital, and Precarity of Labour Market Intermediaries: The Case of Dalit Labour Contractors in India,” Organization Studies, published ahead of print, May 4, 2023.
6. M. Zwick-Maitreyi, T. Soundararajan, and N. Dar, et al., “Caste in the United States: A Survey of Caste Among South Asian Americans,” PDF file (Los Angeles: Equality Labs, 2018).
7. A. Rajadesingan, R. Mahalingam, and D. Jurgens, “Smart, Responsible, and Upper Caste Only: Measuring Caste Attitudes Through Large-Scale Analysis of Matrimonial Profiles,” Proceedings of the Thirteenth International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media 13 (2019): 393-404.
8. N.K. Bharti, “Wealth Inequality, Class and Caste in India, 1961-2012,” working paper 2018/14, World Inequality Lab, Paris, November 2018.
9. D. Kapur, “Diaspora, Development, and Democracy: The Domestic Impact of International Migration from India” (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010).
10. N. Bharathi, D. Malghan, S. Mishra, et al., “Residential Segregation and Public Services in Urban India,” Urban Studies 59, no. 14 (November 2022): 2912-2932; and N. Sahgal, J. Evans, A.M. Salazar, et al., “Attitudes About Caste,” ch. 4 in “Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation” (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, June 29, 2021).
11. S. Roohi, “No One Is Self-Made: Evolving Iterations of Giving and Shaping of Transnational Kamma Caste Subjectivities,” Ethnography 24, no. 3 (September 2023): 352-370.
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