Airtel issues letter on Muslim employee controversy

Bharti Airtel has issued a letter on social media explaining its side of the controversy that broke out after an employee with an Arabic name was rejected by a customer on the basis of his possible affiliation to Islam, and the request was subsequently handled by someone with a Sikh name.

Explaining the incident, the telecom services provider said it did not consciously try to comply with the request of the customer for a non-Muslim representative.

Instead, said Airtel, it just so happened that by the time the customer came back with the reply, the original representative — by the name of Shoaib — got busy.

“As is true for most customer care processes, the idea is to minimize the time taken to resolve any customer query,” said the company.

Indeed, a perusal of Airtel’s twitter timeline shows that the company routinely transfers cases from one representative to another.

In this case, for example, a query originally attended by a representative named Sachin at 8:22 AM yesterday was followed up by a representative named Himanshu at 11:51 AM and then by someone named Ajay eight minutes later.

“So, when a customer writes in and one advisor is busy, the query gets assigned to the next available advisor automatically, which is exactly what happened with Shoaib and Gaganjot,” it said.

However, the company seems to have come up short in training its employees handling its social media accounts in how to handle such ‘unconventional’ requests.

The issue of unconventional and potentially discriminatory customer requests has often been the subject of heated discussion in the US, particularly in the context of white patients who insist on being served by white nurses and doctors in hospitals. In 2010, a court in the US ruled that patient preferences cannot be put above non-discrimination laws of the state.

In some cases, companies politely inform the customer that such a request cannot be fulfilled as it is against the company’s policy to discriminate between its employees based on their names. Many critics of the telecom company faulted it for not doing so.

In its clarification, Airtel asserted its adherence to non-discrimination, but also clarified that the customer service professionals were, in this case, focused on ensuring that “the case was progressing towards a solution.”

“We are still trying to wrap our head around how one colleague responding on behalf of another is being misconstrued as our ‘acceptance of discrimination’. We did not and we repeat, we DID NOT change the advisor because of the unfathomable request from the said customer,” the company said.

“Shoaib, Gaganjot and other members of the team will continue to respond to you basis who is ready and available,” it added.

Responding to the controversy, the Airtel customer who originally made the request for a non-Muslim customer care executive said her request was based on her past experience.

“I simply made a request to change representative from Muslim to Hindu as my experience in past was not good and that’s my right as well. After that, the kind of abuse I’m facing are beyond imagination and that in itself PROVES that I was right at very first place,” she said on Twitter.