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Adidas employees are protesting ‘systemic racism’ in the US division, and they say indifferent German leadership is impeding efforts to tackle the problem


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Adidas employees are protesting ‘systemic racism’ in the US division, and they say indifferent German leadership is impeding efforts to tackle the problem

This story is available exclusively on Business Insider Prime. Join BI Prime and start reading now. Adidas is a global company headquartered in Germany, with major offices across North America and the UK. Some employees say a disconnect between Adidas’ American and German headquarters is impeding the company’s ability to address and solve what they describe…

Adidas employees are protesting ‘systemic racism’ in the US division, and they say indifferent German leadership is impeding efforts to tackle the problem

This story is available exclusively on Business Insider Prime.
Join BI Prime and start reading now.

  • Adidas is a global company headquartered in Germany, with major offices across North America and the UK. 
  • Some employees say a disconnect between Adidas’ American and German headquarters is impeding the company’s ability to address and solve what they describe as racism within the company. 
  • “The messaging from Germany has long been that this is a US problem,” said a current Black employee at Adidas’ Portland, Oregon office.
  • An Adidas spokesperson referred Business Insider to a June 5 company statement that read “racism is an issue that exists not only in the US, but in all countries. We all want to see justice, action, peace, and most importantly, progress. As a global sports company, Adidas is committed to creating change.” 
  • The spokesperson added that the company’s leadership stands with this statement, regardless of location or nationality and that Adidas’ leadership team includes people of multiple nationalities.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Julia Bond was only a few months into a full-time designing job at Adidas when she experienced a brush with racism at the company. A T-shirt design featuring a Confederate flag was approved and sent on a “mood-board” to her team for design inspiration.

Bond said that the design remained on the wall for weeks before anyone, including her, noticed it was there.

“I wasn’t planning on having a visceral reaction but I couldn’t help but cry,” Bond, who is a Black woman, told Business Insider. She took a few days off and met with human resources representatives to explain what happened, she said. An Adidas representative said that the image was removed immediately after the design team was made aware of the incident and an apology was issued to Bond and her team.

But to Bond, the damage was already done.

It’s incidents like these that Adidas is working to stop. But employees say that leadership in the company’s German headquarters are impeding the change that many US-based employees are fighting for by dismissing the issue of racism as a problem that only exists in America. 

Business Insider spoke to five current Adidas employees located in offices in North America and Germany, three of whom cited issues of upward advancement for Black people at the company. In two cases, Business Insider granted anonymity to allow them to speak more frankly about their experiences with Adidas. In these cases, Business Insider verified their identities. 

Four of the five current employees that Business Insider spoke to said they believe a disconnect between Adidas’ American and German leadership impedes the company’s ability to fully address what they describe as racism within the company. A former Adidas employee who worked in the UK office until 2019 and a current employee in North America both cited feeling tokenized by colleagues for their Black skin color.

Some Adidas employees, with Bond at the lead, have been protesting since June 5 and speaking up about what they describe as an uncomfortable and unsafe environment for people of color at the athletic-wear giant and a lackluster response to the current situation in the US. 

Adidas employees are pressing for concrete change at the sportswear giant

In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and protests that spread across America, a 13-member coalition representing over 100 employees from the company’s North American and German headquarters on June 2 sent a 32-page deck to North American leadership titled “Our State of Emergency,” which outlined a series of requests to recognize and respond to racial injustice, with hard deadlines for each.

A day later, in a June 3 email to Adidas’ North American leadership that she shared with Business Insider, Bond described her experience with what she called “systemic racism” in the company. “My existence at this brand is praised as diversity and inclusion, but when I look around I see no one above or around that looks like me,” Bond wrote in the email. “I can no longer stand for Adidas’ consistent complacency in taking active steps against a racist work environment.” 

Adidas’ six-person executive board is entirely white and its 16-person supervisory board is mostly white as well. And Black employees from the company’s North American headquarters in Portland, Oregon, said the company’s workplace contradicts the brand’s diverse and inclusive image, The New York Times previously reported. The report said that fewer than 4.5% of the 1,700 Adidas employees at the Portland, Oregon, campus identified as Black, according to internal employment figures from last summer. In contrast, marketing campaigns and celebrity partnerships from Adidas are known to prominently feature artists and athletes of color, such as Beyonce, Kanye West, and James Harden.

Then, on June 7, an Adidas employee named Aric Armon took to Instagram to share the story of what he described as a white colleague calling him a version of the N-word.

Adidas later joined many other companies in making commitments to being more proactive on race. Nike has pledged a two-to-one match for employee donations to organizations that help advance equality, McDonald’s held a meeting with black franchisee groups to address racial divides both within and outside the company, and Glossier announced it would donate $500,000 to Black Lives Matter, the NAACP Legal Defense, and other funds, as well as an additional $500,000 in grants to Black-owned beauty businesses.

For its part, Adidas announced a three-step plan for change, which included a multimillion-dollar investment into Black communities in America over the next four years, investments in university scholarships for Black employees, and a commitment to filling 30% of all new positions in the US with Black and Latinx people.

Read more: Adidas fired its head of US retail over a ‘violation of company policy’ amid social-justice protests at the brand

Employees feel racism is downplayed by senior leadership

In 2019, however, employees say Adidas management seemed to dismiss racism as a problem confined to North America — and not something the German leadership needed to address head on.

On August 19, 2019, Aaron Ture, a product manager for the Adidas-owned Reebok, was one of many employees in attendance at an all-hands meeting for Reebok employees, which included top leadership from the Adidas board and CEO Kasper Rorsted.

One of the questions that was presented at the meeting centered on the topic of racism within the Adidas group.

The question was answered by Karen Parkin, an Adidas executive board member based in Germany responsible for global human resources. Ture said that Parkin’s response is something he can never forget.

“I hate that I am unable to accurately quote her word for word, but from my memory I recall her response to be along the following lines: ‘This is noise we only hear in North America. I do not believe there is an issue, so I do not feel the need to answer this question,'” Ture wrote in an email to Adidas leadership describing the incident.

Another Adidas employee also described Parkin using the word “noise” to describe the racism problem in the US in a public post on LinkedIn. Adidas has not confirmed Parkin’s original wording in this meeting and Parkin did not return Business Insider’s request for comment.

“This very situation shines light on the very problem we have in this company,” Ture wrote in his email to Adidas leadership sent nearly a year after Rorsted and Parkin addressed the company, which also described his experience as a Black employee at the meeting and at the company in general. “The predominantly white Board, SLT and Corporate Communication Team executed their power to hide what could shine light onto the deeply hidden and systematic issues of our company. One being, that our very Head of HR denounces the experienced racist problems and silences our voices.”

A disconnect between some American employees and German leaders

Ture, who is based in Massachusetts said that while the US seems to recognize racism as a serious issue in the company, the leadership team in Germany seems reluctant to do the same. 

In a Quartz report, one anonymous employee in senior leadership reportedly attributed inaction on racism and discrimination complaints at Adidas to Parkin and Rorsted, describing the pair as the two most powerful figures in the company.

“They’re the ones that are ultimately going to approve or deny anything,” the employee told Quartz. Adidas reportedly disputed this characterization of its senior leadership. Rorsted did not return Business Insider’s request for comment. 

A current corporate employee in Adidas’ Portland office also cited a disconnect among American and German leadership in regards to racism.

“The messaging from Germany has long been that this is a US problem,” said the employee, who requested anonymity to speak more frankly about the situation at Adidas. This employee, who identifies as Black and has been with the company for three years, said that conversations with his German colleagues have made it clear that racism is not viewed with the same gravity abroad as it is in the US.

“There’s just a pretty big disconnect between the global and local companies,” he added.

This disconnect was highlighted in a June 4 German HQ meeting entitled “United Against Racism,” which an employee in attendance said was led by Torben Schumacher, the general manager of Adidas Originals. 

During the meeting, a handful of Black employees from the Portland office were given the chance to publicly recount their personal experiences with racism at Adidas, according to Olivia Pietroni, an Adidas designer in Germany, who attended.

Pietroni, who identifies as a white woman, told Business Insider the move toward open conversation about internal racism during this meeting was a big step for the company. But she felt that a proper acknowledgement of the problem from leadership was lacking, especially from Schumacher, who ran the meeting.

“He very much isolated it to being a US-only problem,” Pietroni said of Schumacher’s discussion of racism in the meeting. Schumacher did not return Business Insider’s request for comment.

In response to a request for comment regarding the alleged disparity between the messaging from US and German leadership about racism, an Adidas spokesperson referred Business Insider to a June 5 company statement that read “racism is an issue that exists not only in the US, but in all countries. We all want to see justice, action, peace, and most importantly, progress. As a global sports company, Adidas is committed to creating change.” 

The spokesperson added that the company’s leadership stands with this statement, regardless of location or nationality, and that Adidas’ leadership team includes people of multiple nationalities.

Another German-office employee who identifies as a non-White female also told Business Insider that she felt the issue of racism was only being addressed in the US.

In regards to Adidas’ June 5 statement, this employee said, “As with any public statement, the language of their action plan and commitments is very intentional. If you compare it to previous statements about diversity and inclusion, the US focus is evident.”

‘A non-apology’

As more employees speak up about their experiences at Adidas, it is getting harder for leadership to remain silent about the issue.

Read more: Leaked documents show how Adidas is confronting racism internally by banning certain terms like ‘asset’ among employees

In addition to its multimillion-dollar investment into Black communities and commitment to filling new positions in the US with Black and Latinx people, Adidas is also banning and reviewing certain phrases like “urban,” “streetwear hound,” and “ghetto” for use in internal discussions.

Most recently, Adidas announced that Juneteenth will be a paid holiday for all employees in North America to commemorate the end of slavery in the US, an Adidas spokesperson confirmed. 

Parkin, who originally joined Adidas in 1997 as a sales director in the UK, took to Adidas’ internal employee platform on Yammer on Friday to address what occurred almost a year ago at the August 19 meeting, an Adidas spokesperson confirmed.

“As the Executive Board Member responsible for HR, it was my responsibility to make clear our definitive stance against discrimination, and this I did not,” Parkin wrote in a post viewed by Business Insider. “Should I have offended anyone, I apologize.”

Ture responded publicly to Parkin’s message in an Instagram post, calling it a “non-apology,” and told Business Insider that the message spurred an “internal uprising” at the company. According to Ture and another Adidas employee in Portland, Parkin’s message had more than 50 responses on the internal network from employees expressing frustration and disappointment.

Now, some employees are calling for an investigation into Parkin, according to a Wall Street Journal report

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“We welcome the commitment of our people to stand against racism,” Adidas said in a statement to the Journal. “Our Black employees have led the response that we will continue to implement together and that we have committed to as a company. We are now concentrating our efforts on making progress and creating real change immediately.”

Some employees say they are finding hope in the recent initiatives. However, at least three employees said that a formal apology and a public acknowledgement of Adidas’ wrongdoings from leadership is still missing.

“I hope that Adidas doesn’t continue to drag this out,” Bond said of Adidas’ lack of a proper apology. “Because it just hurts their image as well.”

If you’re an Adidas or other athletic-wear employee with a story to share, email sciment@businessinsider.com, or contact this reporter via encrypted messaging app Signal at +1 (646) 376-6018 using a nonwork phone.

More:

Adidas
Racism
Black Lives Matter movement
Protest

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