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EXCLUSIVE: After Cisco, HCL's US unit faces lawsuit for sacking employee based on caste

Techie from Andhra Pradesh is a Kapu Naidu and the superior who allegedly harassed and terminated him a Kamma Naidu. Arbitration date on the matter in US court set for April 2021. HCL Tech offers no comment on the issue.

August 05, 2020 / 01:29 PM IST
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A former employee has filed a lawsuit against HCL America, the US unit of the Indian IT major HCL Technologies, for unlawful termination based on his caste by his superior.

Moneycontrol has reviewed the copy of the lawsuit. To keep the employee’s identity anonymous, as per his request, Moneycontrol is using the pseudonym Vikram.

The case, which was filed on March 25 in a superior court in California, has now emerged after the much-publicised Cisco lawsuit that kick-started debates around caste bias in Silicon Valley companies. Ironically, the Cisco case was filed three months later, on June 30.

The lawsuit filed by Vikram against HCL America is similar in the sense that it alleges that his superior Srinivas Chakravarty, a Kamma Naidu by caste, harboured animosity against Vikram, who is a Kapu Naidu.

The two groups have a history of rivalry that could date back to the riots in 1980s in the Vijayawada region of Andhra Pradesh, the lawsuit said.

Fight between the two castes, Kamma and Kapu, resulted the in death of over 40 people and Rs 100 crore in damages, reports had then pointed out. Chakravarty is from Vijayawada, and his caste sentiments are deep-rooted, alleged Vikram. According to the lawsuit, Chakravarty was in Vijayawada during the time of riots.

“Substantial motivating factors for … termination of employment were, without limitation, his ethnicity (including as it relates to caste), race, national origin, ancestry, religious creed and/or color, and/or any such perceived characteristics, and/or his association with members of such protected classes, as well as his complaints about discrimination within the company,” the lawsuit said.

Vikram said that he had come to know that Chakravarty was terminated soon after the lawsuit was filed, but could not independently verify the same.

HCL refuses to comment

HCL Technologies, the parent company of HCL America, did not respond to queries about Chakravarty’s termination and the action taken on two senior managers -- Vikas Soni and Prasanna Subramanian-- to whom Vikram complained.

The company also did not respond to queries by Moneycontrol on the allegations raised in the lawsuit or steps taken by the company to address unfair treatment meted out to Vikram based on his ethnicity.

According to Vikram, discrimination against him started from October 2018 when Chakravarty joined the team and came to know about the former’s caste. “Nothing else justifies his behaviour,” Vikram told Moneycontrol over a teleconference call from the US.

What is the Cisco lawsuit?

The Cisco lawsuit was filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) for discrimination of a Dalit employee by two of his two upper caste superiors -- Sundara Iyer and Raman Kompella.

Cisco was sued for allegedly denying the worker, who immigrated to the US from India, professional opportunities as well as making him “endure a hostile work environment”.

This lawsuit has now put the spotlight on caste discrimination that has long pervaded the Indian community in Silicon Valley, and the tech industry, in particular. This has gained even more significance in the backdrop of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Charges of harassment in HCL’s case

Vikram said that before joining HCL, he had worked with major tech giants in Silicon Valley, and had always been appreciated for his work. He joined HCL America in August 2018 as a technical architect.

“In that capacity, he helped design computer chips for companies like Intel,” the lawsuit said. During his tenure in HCL, Vikram was appreciated by Intel for his efforts.

The lawsuit pointed out Intel’s appreciation: “…had been doing a great job on his project as evidenced by the very productive and positive relationship he had fostered with the client, Intel’s team, and his routine completion of assigned projects correctly and on time. Intel liked him, and he got the job done well,” the lawsuit pointed out.

All that changed when Chakravarty became his superior after October 2018. Chakravarty, the lawsuit said, started rating Vikram poorly on weekly or biweekly reviews. “Chakravarty would generally be very critical of (his) work product, which objectively met or exceeded expectations,” the lawsuit added.

Vikram alleged that Chakravarty would often shout at him during one-on-one review meetings and did not take action when a fellow colleague called him ‘black’ due to his complexion.

Complaints to senior managers bore no fruit, says Vikram. He complained to Vikas Soni, then Worldwide Director for Technical Teams and Prasanna Subramanian, the Program Manager and Chakravarty’s boss, about the unfair treatment, both orally and in writing.

“Other than paying lip service that the matter will be looked into,” absolutely nothing was done,” the lawsuit alleged.

Vikram said that he was eventually placed on “performance improvement plan”, designed for poor performers to assess if they can be deployed in projects. “I cleared it and I was made to work on weekends. But I was still terminated,” he said. “He was told he was fired for missing a day that he called in sick,” the lawsuit pointed out.

Vikram said that he started preparing for legal recourse in December 2019, soon after he was terminated. The arbitration date on the matter is now set for April 2021, he said.

Before filing the lawsuit, Vikram sought mediation with HCL. However, the company did not respond. Upon this, Vikram filed the lawsuit after obtaining a ‘right to sue letter’ from the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH).

“We approached DFEH, which does not take all cases. But they gave us the right to sue letter, which means that the case has merit,” Vikram pointed out.

Swathi Moorthy
first published: Aug 5, 2020 01:29 pm