Home / Opinion / Columns /  The cliques of India Inc are perpetuators of exclusion

Which batch?" are the two words that determine career paths in one of India’s top Mumbai-based manufacturing firms. If you happen to be a graduate from one of the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), or from XLRI-Jamshedpur, then you could expect your career to take a different trajectory. “The cliques in that company are so strong that they even fish out their colleagues and peers from the same grade of B-schools and head out for lunches together. If you want to head a business there, then you must show pedigree because a tier-II B-school won’t get you far, irrespective of how good you are," in the words of a senior executive.

One of India’s largest consumer goods companies is said to have an unofficial mentorship programme for IIM graduates. The seniors meet them after office hours and the circles of kinship formed are tough to break into. “I have a Pune university degree and although I come with similar skill sets, earn at par with them, I will probably not join this FMCG firm because the preference for that alumni base is too strong. I will get stuck later," confided a senior Human Resources executive who had been approached by the company for a job.

Many companies in India are seen to harbour unstated biases that cover a wide spectrum, from a preference for specific B-school graduates to the open favouring of particular communities. It isn’t corporate policy, of course, and the job descriptions never say so. Yet, recruiters in many cases have got enough wind of it to know which candidate would fit the bill and who will not make the cut despite having the necessary qualifications and attitudes towards work. “It is especially stark in promoter-driven companies. There is a whisper why a candidate won’t work. This can be traced to his or her ethnicity and there is sometimes a nudge towards getting another candidate who shares similar cultural ties with the senior lot in the firm," according to a senior executive at one of the country’s top search firms. “It is not new, but these whispers are getting louder, and if these companies become myopic, they will get adversely impacted soon," the executive cautioned.

India Inc’s biases are part of a global phenomenon. Similar parameters are reported to have formed a template in the West for judging candidates and colleagues.

“The meetings take on a different tone if we speak a shared language. We had a new CEO, and within the next six months his entire new team came from the same region. Soon, meetings were conducted in their shared language, which though was understood by the old guard at a basic level," said a senior executive in a Mumbai- based electronics company. “You cannot argue in a language you do not know," she added. “The result was that others who did not share a similar cultural tie seemed lost and many felt shunted out."

The impact of such exclusion is felt particularly hard by junior and middle-order managers who are trying to make a mark. It starts at the campus-hiring level or with middle management at a lateral level. “A senior executive in a Gujarat-based firm was not hired because of his ethnicity. The recruitment team alerted us that though the candidate was a right fit, the hiring team was afraid he may not be received well by the client side," said another senior executive who worked in that company at the time.

Typically, it is the tug and comfort of a shared identity that results in groupism and creates workplace cliques. These are all the more unsettling for a newcomer because entry to such clubs is not open to those who spend time and learn the ropes, but is effectively reserved for candidates with pre-defined educational degrees and socio-cultural backgrounds, which are factors that cannot be changed.

A senior marketing executive was called for an interview at a retail company for a post in the country’s eastern region. The role was good and salary negotiations favoured the candidate, but by the time he left the room, he had decided not to join. “There were sweets distributed favouring a political outcome. I cannot be part of a firm like this where the biases are so out in the open. And this was a collective cheer, not one man’s opinion in the meeting," recounted the marketing executive.

Preferences are often revealed in the form of office ‘banter’ and remarks that are rarely escalated to the top. Many insiders at firms have said that such talk gets shrugged off while those at whom casual barbs are aimed get little support from colleagues.

The galling part of all this is that unlike gender biases, these bonds of kinship stay mostly unspoken and often run too deep to weaken. The idea of an ‘old boys’ club’ doesn’t attract the opprobrium it deserves. Bias acceptance makes space for stray comments and targeted jokes that seem harmless to some but perpetuate exclusion.

The search firm senior executive quoted earlier said that recruiters can at best push the case of a deserving applicant, but the task of serving client needs quickly takes precedence. “But we know it is the company that loses out if the grounds are such. It is never the candidate," he added.

Devina Sengupta writes on workplaces and education at Mint

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