California regulators sued Cisco Systems Inc on Tuesday, accusing it of discriminating against an Indian-American employee and allowing him to be harassed by two managers because he was from a lower Indian caste than them. U.S. employment law does not specifically bar caste-based discrimination, but California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing contends in the lawsuit that India'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 raised at the bottom of India's caste hierarchy as a Dalit, once called "untouchables."
That caste hierarchy was enforced in the workplace, according to the lawsuit, which accuses the two former engineering managers of harassment. Cisco said it did not have immediate comment, saying that it planned to issue a statement at a later time. Like other large Silicon Valley employers, Cisco's workforce includes thousands of Indian immigrants, most of whom were brought up as Brahmins or other high castes.
The civil rights group Equality Labs in a 2018 report cited in the lawsuit found that 67% of Dalits surveyed felt treated unfairly at their U.S. workplaces. Some employers have begun taking action. Massachusetts-based Brandeis University last year added caste to its nondiscrimination policy in what is believed to be a landmark move in U.S. higher education.
At Cisco, the unnamed employee reported his manager to human resources in November 2016 for outing his caste to colleagues. The manager allegedly retaliated, but Cisco determined caste discrimination was not illegal and issues continued through 2018, the lawsuit states. Cisco reassigned the employee's duties and isolated him from colleagues, rejected a raise and opportunities that would have led to one and denied him two promotions, according to the lawsuit.