Iim calcutta indian social structure - in the name of globalisation meritocracy, productivity and the hidden language of caste
A study conducted to understand the social attitudes of Indian employers and hiring managers in the formal sector. Follows similar attempts made in the US by Kirshenmann and Neckerman (1991), Devah Pager (2003).
Kirshenmann and Neckerman (1991) : role played by employers in the production of unequal outcomes by race and gender. Employers believed that black men were unreliable, unruly, poorly educated an low skilled.
Devah Pager (2003) : Prejudice in the minds of the employers remains a problem in the distribution of jobs. Low skill and educational deficits contribute to low employment rates among the Blacks. But even those who are qualified face suspicion!
A qualitative studyUndertaken among 25 human resource managers based in New DelhiSample size small, but firms are big, responsible for a significant number of hiring decisions in any given year
Of the 25 firms about 22 of them employ 19,00,000 ‘core workers’ (on direct payroll), and data on contract and temporary employees for 63,000 workers. Purpose was to explore employer’s perception of the labour force, challenges involved in hiring policy.
Asked questions on their opinions on the reservation policy, whether this policy instrument should be extended to the private sector ?
All interviewees reiterated the fact that ‘workers should be recruited strictly according to merit.’ Traditional practices of recruitment … decided on the basis of personal ties, village ties and caste identity, in other words, on inherited privilege of some sort. Modern practices came in with the growth of professions in the West and their elaborate system of credentialism.
Qualification now essential, competition built in to the system. The promise of merit as a publicly declared value, and the sole legitimate basis for employment… an attempt towards becoming modern Creation of the Civil Services in the colonial period… a step to distribute jobs fairly, do away with corruption
Though this became a practice in the public sector, Indian employers in the private sector joined in this practice quite late. But today they believe that as India becomes an economic powerhouse in the modern world, an adherence to practices that promote meritocracy in hiring and recruitment is essential. To do so otherwise would be detrimental for the larger national good.
A major media company, headquarters in Delhi, bureaus in 16 states 80 year old firm, a workforce of 3000 core employees, another 800 employees hired through outsourced contracts Recruit new employees at the national level, and locally for their auxilliary bureaus Publicly listed company, majority of their shares owned by the Indian family
Claims to having a diversified workforce, ‘irrespective of divisions of caste, creed and colour…’ Prefer and hire people ‘who are more exposed to the world’… exposure after all stimulates the power of imagination Relies on projecting a cosmopolitan image as part of its market appeal… prefers people who are worldly, sophisticated and well educated.
In principle, individuals with this kind of cultural capital could come from any background, but in practice institutions that produce cosmopolitanism are rarely accessible to members of SC/STs. Public institutions that privilege the written exam as a marker of merit, often forget that it does not favour the minorities and the lower castes.
A 20 yr old company, a small family owned firm with 150 people, sells processed agricultural products. As a fairly new company it claims to value and espouse modern management practices The HR Director alleges that there is no relationship between quality of work and background characteristics like caste.
There is an acknowledgement that if not in this company, caste and community does matter in the private companies. A person who is a thriving businessman is often helped in his business by his own caste/community members or by his friends who belong to the same caste. Caste is found in ‘smaller organisations’, in ‘rural areas’. Casteism or in-group preference has not disappeared completely. However an evolutionary trend is in progress.
As globalisation creates competitive pressures, conservative, backward practices are bound to give way. Firms most exposed to international competition have abandoned discriminatory tradition. However, the language of merit masks many forms of institutional discrimination that prevent all members from competing on a level playing field.
Every hiring manager interviewed in this project was of the view that ‘family background’ was critical in evaluating a potential employee. This would contradict the idea of ‘merit’ as understood classically in terms of rising above one’s station at birth and one’s family of origin.
When an Indian hiring manager is seeking information on the candidate’s background, it includes everything apart from the candidate’s educational or work experience. For eg. … family background entails looking at …’good background’, ‘educated parents’, ‘brother and sister working’, ‘preference for those from urban areas’ etc. (HR Mgr, MNC)
‘Family background or the setting in which the candidate is raised makes a difference between success and failure in a job applicant.’ (HRM, of a firm which sells multiple products) This is especially so for managerial positions. For lower level workers, the company wants to know if the standards of the company match with that of the applicant.
Trainability is an important factor… this too depends upon the subjective perception of the interviewer about the traits of the candidate Family background matters because the respondents felt that ‘merit is formed within the crucible of the family’.
For the hiring mgr who cannot know the applicant very well, the success of the job applicant’s family stand as proof that the individual is reliable, motivated and worthy. Number of family members, their level of education, education of parents especially, questions about locality, schooling etc are important because these characteristics ar the source of ‘soft skills’ that are an asset to the firm.
Screening applicants based on family background creates employment barriers for the dalits, OBCs and others lower down in the hierarchy as they do not have desirable educational or occupational biographies. Even for those living in the cities, the children go to state run, non English medium schools
Even those from the rich families are also not preferred because it is believed that they would turn out to be ‘pampered’, ‘lazy’, ‘using connections’ to get in, they would have ‘an inner pride which makes them arrogant’ and therefore unsuitable. Thus the central importance of the meritocratic model is the ‘family background’ which works in favour of the middle classes. It has no space for those at the very top or the bottom.
HR Managers have firm ideas about qualities that different regions inculcate in their inhabitants The HR Managers feel anxious about- Social consequences of throwing together combinations of antagonistic local groups of workers.- Solidarity within the workforce based on caste, tribe, village membership which may come together against the management .
Relations that the Company forges with the workers and the community around it allows it to stereotype its workers (eg Kilim Chemical Company) In a self consciously modern private airline, the emphasis is on stylish appearance, fluency in English and cultural sophistication Physical appearance is integral for the right kind of employee. (eg National Airlines)
Recruitment in rural areas show a caste bias; workers disappear for a month during agricultural season, leads the HR Mgr to hold strong views (eg Security Services) Caste an important factor in organising the local labour force; Unions are structured by caste. The firm tries to temper the power of caste/ethnic base organising by developing paternalistic relationship and by recruiting ethnically diverse groups. (eg India Motors)
Hiring also shows preference for specific groups, regional ethnicities and religions(Preference for Malayali Christian nurses, exclusion of SCs/Muslims who do not fit because of a mind set )
No one in the entire category of research subjects was favourably disposed towards reservation as policy of hiring. Reservation policy inserts ascriptive criteria into the hiring process and short circuits the competitive processes essential to the market. Defeat the purpose of national growth, international investment etc
Some thought that discrimination is not a problem in the development of India’s labour market. The idea is that if a person is capable enough he/she does not need reservations Yet managers are aware that inequality is persistent, that low caste individuals have less opportunity than others in the labour market.
Employers feel that education and not affirmative action will uplift the lower caste population. Integrated schooling which bring both the high and the low castes together over a long period of time… may break down caste barriers
Pitfalls of reservation are many :- Destroys initiative as well as productivity- Trade unions will make trouble which will ultimately cost the company.- Damage competitiveness, as it can be seen in the government firms. It has the potential to spread a watered down ethic.- Undermine the self confidence of the low caste or minority students who come to believe that they are not really good enough
Reservation has become the privilege of one class of dalits- those in the urban areas.
Though meritocracy has spread around the globe along with competitive capitalism, ascriptive characteristics (now in the garb of family background) continue to matter. Commitment to modern labour management practices turn a blind eye to the uneven playing field that produces merit in the first place.
Commitment to merit is voiced along with convictions of how merit is distributed according to caste, community, regional considerations. Hence stereotypes replace individual’s qualities. Merit is after all produced through the intervention of a large number of factors.
The distribution of credentials particularly in the form of education is hardly a function of individual talent alone. It reflects differential investment in schools, healthcare, nutrition etc. Institutional discrimination of this kind condemns the low caste to a life of poverty. As long as the playing field is tilted, there would be no meaning of meritocracy conceived of as a fair game!