Corporates don’t even pay lip service to promote religious diversity at workplaces

By Anuvab Mohanty*

Religious diversity at India’s corporate workplaces is complicated. Imagine, for a second, that you are a young Muslim who just entered the workforce. In your first year, you receive bonuses and sweets for Diwali and Dussehra. HR decorates offices with Christmas trees every December. However, there are no observations for the Eid festivals. The festivals of the second most followed religion on India are nearly absent from Indian workplaces. This example, while not serious in itself, does demonstrates the lack of focus on religious diversity at Indian workplaces.

Prompted by government regulations and simple profit-orientation, India’s corporations have taken big strides to attract women to workplaces. There is significant focus on delivering gender diversity, with large corporate houses organising seminars and occasionally creating gender-based hiring policies favouring women. Maternity leave policies are legally mandated and have been implemented across most large corporate houses. Zomato recently initiated a policy for period leaves. Compared to the prominence of these efforts, companies do not even attempt to pay lip service to promoting religious diversity at workplaces.

Muslims account for 14% of the Indian population but are only 2.67% of the senior executives for BSE 500 companies. The remuneration gap reflects this employment gap, with Muslims earning 3.14% of the remuneration earned by these executives (Karunakaran, 2015). There is significant gap between the employment as well as education outcomes for the Hindu community versus the Muslim community. In fact, educational and employment outcomes for Muslims is like the numbers for the SC community. This is not exactly a surprise – educational outcomes are correlated with career progress.

This trend is accentuated by the fact that Indian corporate as well as college culture encourages conformity. This social pressure to conform prevents individuals from taking stands on issues that they feel would adversely impact their careers. Starting conversations on religious diversity would be one such cause for ostracization in the current environment of religious intolerance.

How does someone looking for a good corporate career do that and stand for issues they believe in? As per Romi Mahajan, the only real answer to the conundrum is to be so good at your job that you are indispensable to the company they work for. At the same time, one has to ensure that one does not accept any moral or ethical compromises in the name of their career or company.

Corporations have a way of making good people put corporate interests above human interests. One has to maintain an extremely strong sense of identity in a corporate ocean and constantly fight against the currents that push people towards conformity. To paraphrase Mr. Mahjan, it is not easy, but the difficult roads are the most rewarding.

The BLM movement in the US is similar to the struggles of India’s Dalit communities. However, there are clear similarities between the American state-led oppression against people of colour and the Indian state’s general hostility to its Muslim citizens.

Zeshan Ali Khan, a Mumbai based MBA graduate, was rejected from a job because of his religion

After the interview with Mr. Mahajan, we worked on finding some means to improve the inclusion of Muslims in India’s corporate workforce:

  1. Focus on early education: Early education is very strongly correlated with career outcomes. In fact, the biggest predictor of career success for communities is not their caste or religion, it is the completion rate for early education. An individual who finishes class 10th or 12th is far more likely to go to college and pursue a corporate career than someone who dropped out at an earlier age.
    The Indian state has suffered from chronically underfunded and low-quality early education. Most government schools suffer from teacher absenteeism, low quality infrastructure and a variety of other issues. Fixing these issues, especially in areas with higher minority population would have an outsized impact on long-term outcomes.
  2. Offer corporate training on religious diversity: Regular sensitization and training within corporate houses is a must. Simple acts ranging from everyday comments about other religions to insensitivity about religious needs (such as the requirement to offer Namaz multiple times during the workday) can be serious barriers to religious inclusion. Simple sensitization can go a long way towards increasing inclusivity.
  3. Celebrate festivals of multiple religions and offer leave for religious reasons: Festivals of multiple religions should be celebrated – including festivals like the various Eids. Celebration of Islamic festivals is extremely rare in Indian workplaces. This is partially due to the fact that a lot of these celebrations are shaped around what has always been done instead of a real evaluation of what should be done. This has changed, especially for gender related issues, but remains to be done on religious issues. For instance, many corporate houses organise specific events celebrating Women’s day. Celebrations similar to Diwali gifts and Christmas decorations can be organised for festivals of other religions.
  4. Adopt a no-tolerance policy for bullying based on religion: Workplace bullying based on religious identity has a devastating effect on the participation of religious minorities. This can be overt in the form of comments and name calling or take the form of covert discrimination such as discrimination from promotion opportunities. Adoption of zero tolerance policies and creation of special committees to investigate allegations in the lines of POSH committees can reduce instances of workplace bullying.
  5. Recognise and prevent microaggressions: Simple acts of microaggression can often go unnoticed by the individuals who perpetrate them. For instance, it is common to persuade individuals to drink at social events after work on weekends. For some religions, drinking is prohibited. Appropriate sensitivity training can help individuals recognise these microaggressions and prevent them.

References

Karunakaran, N. (2015, Sep 7). Muslims constitute 14% of India, but just 3% of India Inc. Retrieved from Economic Times: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/muslims-constitute-14-of-india-but-just-3-of-india-inc/articleshow/48849266.cms?from=mdr

*PGP 2019-21 student, IIM Ahmedabad

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