California sues Cisco for harassing Dalit Indian-American worker

Two former managers of tech company accused of isolating the employee, refusing a raise and denying two promotions.

FILE PHOTO: The Cisco logo is seen at their booth at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Sergio Perez/File Photo
Two Cisco managers are accused of harassing the employee by internally enforcing the Indian caste hierarchy [File: Sergio Perez/Reuters]

California regulators have sued Cisco Systems Inc, accusing it of discriminating against an Indian-American employee and allowing him to be harassed by two managers because he was a Dalit, a member of a marginalised group in India once known as “untouchables”.

US employment law does not specifically bar caste-based discrimination, but California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing contends in the lawsuit that the Hindu faith’s lingering caste system is based on protected classes such as religion.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Jose, does not name the alleged victim.

It states he has been a principal engineer at Cisco’s San Jose headquarters since October 2015, and that he was born outside the Hindu caste hierarchy as a Dalit.

Like other large Silicon Valley employers, Cisco’s workforce includes thousands of Indian immigrants, most of whom were born into more privileged groups such as Brahmin or other castes.

Former Cisco engineering managers Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella are defendants in the lawsuit, which accuses them of harassment for internally enforcing the Hindu caste hierarchy.

Cisco spokeswoman Robyn Blum said the company followed its process to investigate employee concerns in this case and would “vigorously defend itself” against the lawsuit.

“Cisco is committed to an inclusive workplace for all,” she said. “We were fully in compliance with all laws, as well as our own policies.”

Iyer and Kompella did not immediately respond to requests for comment. It was not immediately known if the two have retained attorneys.

Civil rights group Equality Labs in a 2018 report cited in the lawsuit found that 67 percent of Dalits surveyed felt treated unfairly in their US workplaces.

At Cisco, the unnamed employee reported Iyer to human resources in November 2016 for outing him as a Dalit to colleagues.

Iyer allegedly retaliated, but Cisco determined that caste discrimination was not illegal and issues continued through 2018, the lawsuit states.

Cisco reassigned and isolated the employee, refused him a raise and opportunities that would have led to one, and denied two promotions, according to the lawsuit.

Hindus traditionally grouped people into four major castes based on ancestry, and Dalits, who fall outside this system, still struggle with access to education and jobs 65 years after India banned caste-based discrimination.

Source: Reuters