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Are U.S. Tech Companies Protecting an Ancient Form of Social Hierarchy? California Authorities Charge Cisco with Caste-Based Discrimination


California attracts workers from all parts of the globe. This means that various aspects of foreign cultures also find themselves imported into the United States–including certain practices that may violate federal and state laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Indeed, a recent lawsuit filed by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) addresses a particular form of discrimination that is still commonly practiced in traditional Indian culture: the caste system.

As described by a 2001 report prepared by Human Rights Watch, “India’s caste system is perhaps the world’s longest surviving social hierarchy.” As a “defining feature of Hinduism, caste encompasses a complex ordering of social groups on the basis of ritual purity.” A person’s caste is considered an immutable characteristic, i.e., someone is born into a particular caste and remains there until death. And during their lifetime, caste is a determining factor in a person’s social status.

Indian Tech Worker Allegedly Held Back Due to Status as “Dalit”

While you may think an ancient concept like social caste would not play a role in the workings of a 21st-century technology company, that is exactly what the DFEH alleged in a June 30 lawsuit filed in federal court against Cisco Systems, Inc., and two of its executives. DFEH alleges that Cisco discriminated against an Indian employee who is considered to be part of the “Dalit,” which is at the “bottom” of the caste system’s hierarchy.

The employee–identified only as John Doe–worked under two supervisors who belonged to higher Indian castes. The DFEH alleged that these supervisors expected John Doe to adhere to the caste hierarchy even while working in the United States, meaning he “held the lowest status” within his working team and therefore “received less pay, fewer opportunities, and other inferior terms and conditions of employment.”

DFEH said that although Cisco employs a significant number of Indian workers from South Asia, the company has taken no steps “ to prevent, remedy, or deter the unlawful conduct against Doe or similarly situated lower caste workers.” Indeed, DFEH alleged that when John Doe complained about his supervisors’ discriminatory actions, he faced retaliation in the form of reassignment and isolation from his colleagues–actions that upper management at Cisco failed to stop.

DFEH’s lawsuit seeks damages and injunctive relief against Cisco. In a statement, DFEH Director Kevin Kish said, “It is unacceptable for workplace conditions and opportunities to be determined by a hereditary social status determined by birth.” Kish noted that California law was recently amended to give his office the authority to directly sue companies that failed to comply with federal civil rights laws.

California Employers Must Be Proactive in Preventing Discrimination

DFEH’s lawsuit is merely a statement of allegations against Cisco. As of this writing, the company has not admitted any wrongdoing, and the case has yet to be tried. But the DFEH’s actions send an important message that California employers must be proactive in rooting out any form of discriminatory practices in their workforce, even those that may follow “traditional” cultural practices from other nations.

If you have questions or concerns about your own workplace’s employment practices or policies, please consult with a qualified California labor law attorney.


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* Cathleen Scott is licensed to practice in Florida only.

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