Different Indian states have their symbols, songs, animals, clothing styles. Less officially, yet perhaps more pervasively, they also have their stereotypes: lazy, artistic Bengalis; daft, partying Punjabis; cheap, shrewd Gujaratis.

We’ve grown up hearing these cultural and regional distinctions, likely even explained away certain behaviours through them. Now, a pair of sociologists, one in the US and one in India, have examined characterizations of caste, religion and region in private- sector hiring to understand how they may perpetuate immobility.

Such discrimination, finds their study published earlier this month in the Economic and Political Weekly, “contributes to the pattern of unemployment that plagues…religious or caste-based minorities in India".

That might not surprise those resigned to accept this as a part of this country’s fabric. But the findings come on the heels of a private sector wary of mandatory reservations assuring the public that the playing field will level through increased focus on merit, an eventual uplifting of each generation of the poor. This latest survey casts some doubt on that pledge.

To be fair, the survey’s respondents did believe in merit-based hiring, itself a shift in a workplace landscape rooted in nepotism and a “who-you-know" culture. The problem is what employers say they believe and actually do (and ask applicants) varies.

“They still see it in terms of corporate social responsibility with a school or hospital in a village," Surinder Jodhka, sociology professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, said in an interview. “With liberalization and globalization, the corporate sector acquires a leadership role in society. If you have to create new elites, you have to think differently."

That means the new elites might not necessarily be the children of the old elites. Yet, employers in the survey described family background to be of utmost importance, and conceded they dwell quite a bit during interviews on the subject of family.

“…how many family members are there, how many are educated," said a jewellery manufacturer. “The basic assumption behind these questions is that a good person comes from a good and educated family. If parents have a good education, then children also have a good education…"

Conversely, recruiters surveyed said they avoid the children of the very wealthy because they bring pampered, lazy attitudes into the office.

With sectors such as retail, airlines and hospitality booming, today’s hires must interact with a public whose realities might be far from their own. Employers say they cannot help but rely on family background—which includes socioeconomic or religious status—to determine compatibility. Consider the hotelier who said, “In housekeeping, we generally avoid people from a slum area because their level of cleanliness will be different from us. For him, a dusty room would also be a clean room. …In the front office, we go for trained and professional people and they all belong to higher castes."

Professions where looks matter seem especially ruthless. Last week, Mint ran a front-page article on how the beauty and airlines industries converge in some training schools.

The sociologists’ survey interviewed at least one airline upholding that view: “Punjabi culture is very open; their faces have glow… But that is not the same case of Haryana culture, Uttar Pradesh or Bihari culture. They are not good for us."

In the same interview, the company said it preferred urban hires to rural, namely the daughters of army men. Another refrain was the appeal of polished candidates with “exposure".

“We need people who are more exposed," said one person in the position of hiring. “We believe power of imagination comes with exposure."

It does not take any further study to determine that people with rural backgrounds, despite their own levels of education, often cannot surmount the stigma of history—let alone afford the price of said exposure through plane tickets and five-star dining. Historically, we know who has been excluded.

Yet, none of the companies had positive thoughts about quotas in hiring. Said one hiring manager for a manufacturing company: “…if you have a level and a degree, no one can stop you."

Such employers’ mindsets fail to see their own role in economic backwardness for a large swath of society, said Katherine Newman, a prominent sociologist, now at Princeton University and previously at Harvard University. (Even more notably, she’s been a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show.) “If you can’t get past that first gate, you aren’t even in the running," she said.

So, perhaps employers might want to choose and weigh their questions and perceptions. After all, even with the right degree and qualifications, there is one place where the road to opportunity begins or ends: theinterview.

(Your comments are welcome at widerangle@livemint.com)