Friday, July 20, 2007

Cultural Diversity & Affirmative Action

Infy turns to more states for affirmative action for SCs
India's Affirmative Action Rocks the Boat

Private companies in India are slowly waking up to the new corporate responsibility - Affirmative Action. Public sector in India and the government has been promoting affirmative action in form of forced reservation through the ‘quota’ system for decades. But only now, private companies have started to look at taking an active step towards voluntary affirmative action.

A voluntary affirmative action will be tough to manage for most Indian organizations. To begin with, most organizations are not exposed to the concepts of affirmative action - most people confuse affirmative action with reservations and have a negative mindset towards it. Given the recent public backlash to reservations at IIM & IIT, the private sector in India can expect similar backlash from their own employees to affirmative action. In addition, most employees are not aware of how to handle & manage affirmative action. Almost all Indian companies do not have policies and procedures to handle affirmative action. There is virtually no grievance cell to handle any discrimination cases and the list goes on. Implementing affirmative action implies a radical shift in company’s policies.

Thus implementing a voluntary affirmative action will have a deep impact on Indian organizations. It is therefore very important to understand the how people react to cultural differences - before embarking on a plan to improve cultural diversity via affirmative action.

Reactions to Cultural Diversity

History shows that throughout the entire human civilization has repeatedly demonstrated four distinct reactions to cultural diversity:

  1. Genocide

    Genocide represents that the society is willing to kill other human beings who are culturally dissimilar with that of the society. Genocide is usually the first animal instinctive reaction to diversity, or the most primitive of the human reaction. As the society advances and develops, the society realizes that Genocide is not a good option - and the reaction evolves into segregation.
    In India for example, there has been several examples of Genocide. By Genocide I mean demonstration of extreme anger or discomfort or even killing. In an extreme cases, whole groups of people may be killed. In India, there has been no recent instances of large scale murders - but caste based massacre is quite common in rural India. In office environment, an example of Genocide may be that of extremely public demonstrations - strikes and public intimidation of the minority groups.

  2. Segregation

    Segeragation is the isolation of minority group within the organization. Large organizations will often have several groups of people - with each group having its own cultural identity.

    Segeration in the corporate world can take several subtle forms - such as glass ceiling, blaming, racial slurs etc. In India however, segregation is still common. Though caste based discrimination has reduced, but the society is yet to evolve into a truly integrated one. Segregation is more prevalent in the rural areas and in areas with low education standards.

    Segregation in form of "Glass Ceiling" is also prevalent all over the world - especially at the higher end of the organization - i.e., senior management levels. India is no exception to it. Almost all ~100% of Indian CEOs are from the upper castes.

    Segregation is the second stage of social evolution. Once a society learns that it cannot destroy the ones which do not conform to its norms, the society will tolerate it - but will maintain an arms length distance.

  3. Assimilation

    Assimilation is next phase of social evolution. This occurs when the society learns that it can no longer afford to keep the cultural minority group segregated - it will try to assimilate it - i.e., try to make the minority group accept the norms and practices of the majority group and see to it that there are no/little cultural differences.

    France, in year 2006 passed a bill banning all public display of religion. This is a perfect example of forced assimilation.

    In the corporate world, the power to assimilate a minority is so immense that it usually succeeds at least at the surface level. For example, In US, all holidays are centered around Anglo-Saxon culture. People from Asia, Africa are forced to accept that. Hindus, Buddhists & Muslims do not have the option of taking a different set of holidays which are in-line with their religion. In India, corporate too have the same problem.

    Normally assimilation will be welcome if the minority group is really small or negligible But as the population numbers of the minority group grows, there will be resentment. But this resentment will be demonstrated by small gestures - such as celebrating their local cultural events publicly etc. For example look at how the Irish Society in the US displayed its culture during St. Patrick's day during late 1800’s. Or see how Indians in Silicon Valley or Indians in London display their culture during Divali.

  4. Integration

    Integration is the final and the most evolved phase of the society. In this phase, both the majority & minority groups will have build a mutual respect & trust. This takes a lot of efforts from both sides. But once it is achieved the society is very stable. In Corporate India, several castes and religious groups have been successfully integrated. But these are mainly forward castes, and a few backward castes. Getting to a total social integration in India will take some time.

Closing Thoughts

Corporate India is now embarking on the inevitable, irreversible path of social integration by means of voluntary affirmative action. Company managers - especially HR must tread cautiously. Organizations must research the possible implications of voluntary affirmative action and then develop plans to mitigate any adverse reactions before implementing the plans.

Voluntary affirmative action is not enough, companies must make plans to integrate the entire organization in a phased manner - and have plans, procedures and practices inplace to avoid any segregation. Mistakes in this process will lead to lots of negative publicity, low employee morale and high attrition - and this will inevitably lead to losses.

Indian corporates can look at some of the best practices at the Tata Group, Wipro and see how these companies have fared at social integration.

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