Adidas touts diversity when marketing its sports and fitness wear but it appears the sports apparel company’s message contradicts its actual practices with Black employees.
Adidas has built much of its name and sales in the United States through its association with African-American superstars.
In the 1980s, the popular hip-hop group Run-DMC gave the company’s sneakers and apparel cultural cachet through its song “My Adidas.” Popular Black athletes and entertainers like Kanye West and sports stars like Houston Rockets star James Harden, endorse its products.
Adidas announced a new partnership with Beyoncé Knowles in April. The singer posted a photo on Instagram that showed her reclining on a pile of Adidas sneakers and wearing a red Adidas bodysuit. The image was liked more than 7 million times.
But the New York Times reports that Black employees at the company’s North American headquarters in Portland, Oregon, describe a workplace culture that contradicts the brand’s image. Current and former Adidas employees said that the company’s predominantly white leadership struggling with issues of race and discrimination. African-American employees say race is a constant issue, leaving the relatively few Black employees often feeling marginalized and sometimes discriminated against.
The Times reports that of the nearly 1,700 Adidas employees at the Portland campus, fewer than 4.5% identify as Black, according to internal employment figures from last summer.
“Only three people, or about 1%, of Adidas’s roughly 340 worldwide vice presidents last year were Black, according to two people with knowledge of the figures. One of the Black executives, a female head of operations, has since departed.”
Black employees said they had been told when they sit together in the cafeteria that it made some of their white colleagues nervous and could hurt their chances of getting promotions or being put on important marketing campaigns if it appeared that they were not trying to fit the Adidas mold.
“Several current and former Adidas employees said they were frequently the only Black person in meetings and often felt their input was not valued when decisions were being made, reports the Times. “And an overall lack of racial diversity, they said, meant it was not uncommon for negative stereotypes to creep into work discussions or marketing pitches involving Black athletes, sometimes creating backlash outside the company. Even when such ideas were scuttled before becoming part of official advertising campaigns, Black employees said, the conversations left them feeling uncomfortable.”
Two Black employees said they had been referred to with a common racist slur by white co-workers, one verbally and one in a text message seen by The Times. In both instances, the people believed the slur was intended as a joke, which they felt only highlighted the company’s skewed perspective on race.
The problems at Adidas appears to reflect a larger issue facing the American sports apparel industry, which has combined annual revenue of more than $20 billion on shoe sales alone. Companies like Adidas, Nike and Under Armour have workforces that are primarily white, but their most influential customers — those who make their products desirable to others — often are not.”
Karen Parkin, the global head of human resources for Adidas, said that the company knew that it had work to do on the issue of race.
Parkin said Adidas had “zero tolerance” for inappropriate behavior. She said that she was unaware of the incidents involving the slurs and that, if they had been reported to human resources, an investigation would have occurred.
“We want to be humble,” Parkin said. “We’re not where we need to be in all of the locations around the world. But we’re not afraid to have the conversation, either.”
It is an encouraging sign that Adidas has taken the first step which is admitting that it has a problem with racial discrimination and issues of inclusion. However, the company must go beyond its diversity message and public relations efforts and actually address its problem with action.