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Black Lives Matter: Sports giant Adidas caught on the back foot with faltering response

When the killing in Minneapolis of a black man, George Floyd, sparked a wave of protests across the globe via the Black Lives Matter campaign, it was a defining moment, the likes of which hadn’t been seen for generations.

Organisations everywhere have had to respond and look afresh at their policies on race and equality and the way they treat staff from different backgrounds. Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests have thrust brands’ policies on diversity firmly into the spotlight.

Clearly, there was a rush to condemn the killing and support the campaign, especially on social media. Yet fine words that are not backed up by decisive, tangible action are virtually worthless. Statements of support alone are, frankly, never enough. Companies must also be seen to be taking clear action.

German sportswear giant Adidas, which employs 60,000 people worldwide, is a case in point. Scores of its workers from nations across continents have written to their employer’s leaders calling on them to investigate HR boss Karen Parkin’s approach in tackling racial inequality, and investigate whether it was the right one.

A letter was signed by more than 80 staff members from five of the firm’s offices in June. It said that issues should be tackled ‘at the highest ranks of leadership, especially in HR’.

It added:

“We are not representative of the communities we profit from and we lack the leadership, processes, and goals to get there.”

Employees also called for an anonymous database for the safe reporting of racist incidents, alongside an apology to staff members of colour who did not feel safe.

Parkin reportedly dismissed concerns about racism in Adidas as being confined to the company’s North American offices, describing them as ‘noise’, albeit later admitting she could have picked a better word.

Too little too late?

After initially rejecting the points in the letter, Adidas North America said it would:

  • Work to boost African-American communities

  • Fill nearly a third (30%) of its current vacancies with black or Hispanic employees

  • Fund 50 academic scholarships a year for black students

It also admitted it was ‘time to own up to our silence’, recognised the leadership black staff members had shown at its US HQ in Portland, Oregon, where some staff members protested outside the building, and highlighted the importance of black sports and music stars to its brand. (Singer Beyoncé and rapper Kanye West are just two who have signed deals with Adidas.)

These actions, however, followed a slew of negative publicity, so in many ways the damage had already been done.

In fact, the brand’s perceived issues with race go back beyond the Floyd killing – in 2019, the New York Times reported that less than 5% of the Portland workforce was of African-American heritage, despite the prominence of black music and athletic stars in Adidas’s marketing efforts.

But the company is not alone. Global beauty brand Estee Lauder has vowed to accelerate a review of its own policies, following a request from dozens of staff to remove a board member because of his political donations. The letter argued that the association damaged the corporate values of the organisation, as well as its relationships with employees of colour.

How we can help

At Inspired Human, we help companies place diversity and inclusion at the top of their leadership team’s agenda, to avoid situations like the ones described above. We can help get real commitment to tangible change on diversity and inclusion in your organisation.

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