You might think the athleticwear industry would be extremely diverse, given how companies like Adidas cater to African-American athletes and entertainers in its marketing campaigns. The company has partnerships with a number of high-flying celebrities, including Kanye West and, as of April, Beyoncé.
Indeed, the company says that 55% of its employee base in the U.S. — including retail employees — is made up of people of color.
Yet only 4.5% of the company’s staff at its U.S. headquarters in Portland identify as African-American. Only two of Adidas’ approximately 340 vice presidents worldwide are African-American — about 1%.
The New York Times recently published an investigation into Adidas, and its findings apply to companies throughout the athleticwear industry. African-Americans are played up publicly, but it’s tough — and rare — to be an African-American working in the industry.
The Times interviewed over 20 current and former Adidas employees about the issue of race at the company’s U.S. headquarters, which is called “Adidas Village.” Race, they said, is a constant issue that management struggles to deal with. Black employees often feel marginalized and sometimes experience discrimination.
For example, some employees noted that African-Americans tend to sit together in the cafeteria. This apparently makes some white colleagues nervous and leads to accusations that the African-Americans aren’t trying to fit into the larger Adidas culture. This could mean blacks are passed over for important assignments or promotions, the employees said.
Several people interviewed said that they were often the only African-American person in meetings. They also said they felt their input wasn’t valued in decision-making.
That’s unfortunate because Adidas’ overall lack of diversity has sometimes led to negative racial stereotypes making their way into public marketing campaigns. This has sometimes created a public backlash, according to the Times. Yet even when minority employees headed the problem off before it went public, the discussions often created feelings of discomfort.
Two African-American employees told the Times that they had been referred to using racist slurs, although they believed this was done as a joke. They said the joking only served to highlight the company’s issues with race.
Adidas’ global head of human resources admits that the company has a way to go on the issue of race, although the company has a “zero tolerance” policy for inappropriate behavior.
“We want to be humble,” she told the Times. “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.”
According to the Times, many of the employees interviewed said the race issues at Adidas are part of a larger problem in the athleticwear industry. Other companies, including Nike and Under Armour, have primarily white workforces but rely on African-American celebrities to sell their products.
Nike’s workforce is even more predominantly white than Adidas on the whole. Including retail workers, only 23% of Nike’s U.S. employees are African-American. However, 8% of the company’s vice presidents are black.
Last year, Footwear News put out a list of the top 40 people under 40 years of age who it felt were revolutionizing the shoe industry. Not one African-American was listed.
“Some companies have said for years that they want to create a diverse workplace, but if anything, the numbers are getting worse. And they don’t care. It’s a lot of lip service,” said an industry insider.
Race discrimination can make companies weaker when lack of diversity allows racially insensitive products or messages to reach the market.