Months after an exposé revealed internal behavioral challenges at Nike and mere days since Under Armour faced its own supposed #MeToo moment, the corporate culture at powerhouse athletic brand Adidas is facing scrutiny.
In a letter addressed to newly minted Adidas North America president Zion Armstrong and obtained by FN this week, an employee of the brand purporting to speak on behalf of minorities at the company urged the new leader to “diversify representation” in the firm’s upper ranks, alleging racial and ethnic tensions at the brand.
“Internal hallway chatter has coined [North America] leadership and a group of select individuals as the ‘Mafia,’” the letter said. “The assumption is that this nickname is not playful in nature and represents a culture that embodies the opposite of inclusivity, rooted in personal relationships, racial bias and not necessarily on experience or qualifications.”
In the days since the letter was purportedly routed to Armstrong, multiple sources — identifying as racial and ethnic minorities — have told FN that white leaders at the German athletic brand’s Portland, Ore.-headquarters have failed to promote and treat people of color fairly.
“North America senior leaders foster, encourage and reward an exclusive all-white environment made up of the same individuals that are consistently promoted and spotlighted,” said one current employee, who accused leaders of the brand of withholding opportunities from African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics and other minorities while unjustly promoting their white counterparts. “They ostracize people of color and cultivate a high school ‘clique’ environment.”
In response to FN’s request for comment, the company said in a statement that it is “committed to maintaining a respectful and inclusive environment for all Adidas employees around the world. It’s crucial that we have and support a diverse workforce that represents a variety of ideas, strengths, interests and cultural backgrounds. We value all of our employees, are stronger because of their unique perspectives and are dedicated to achieving greater diversity at every level of the company.”
For several years, the brand had lost its footing in the U.S. as athletic category leader Nike — with its provocative marketing and heavy-hitting lineup of superstar athletes — reigned supreme. In 2015, around the same time Adidas tapped A-list music artists and fashion influencers Kanye West and Pharrell Williams, the brand enjoyed a marked revival in North America and has clocked double-digit growth in the region ever since.
But insiders at the company purport that its external marketing efforts run counter to its internal corporate culture.
“There are zero opportunities for growth for [minorities] — especially for a brand that claims to be culturally [in touch],” said one current employee. “I am being denied opportunities because I’m black. I recently found out that one of the white colleagues at the same level as me makes $20,000 more than me a year. They’re culture vultures and not passionate about minority issues. It’s a huge disparity when you look at our brand campaigns with [rap artists such as] 2Chainz, Pharrell and [our relationship with] Kanye West and how people of color are actually treated at the brand.”
While Adidas has undeniably reaped the benefits — mostly a halo effect, according to the brand — of its relationship with West, the designer and rap artist has faced his own string of public backlash in recent months stemming from his multiple meetings with President Donald Trump and most notably his May comments suggesting slavery was a choice. Adidas’ decision to continue to work with West in light of his sometimes controversial behavior has also stirred internal tension, sources told FN.
“Kanye is who he is, and he brings different points of view out,” Adidas CEO Kasper Rørsted last month told FN of the brand’s relationship with West. “But you have to go back to the macro. We’re in 75 countries. If we wanted complete buy-in from everybody in the world with what we do in every one of those countries, we couldn’t upgrade.”
According to Adidas’ website, the label’s Germany headquarters employ people from 100 nationalities, and it recently hit its global target of having 32 percent of women in leadership, 18 months prior to the goal date. Although it does not list specific numerical goals for boosting the number of ethnic and racial minorities at the firm, Adidas’ global head of HR, Karen Parkin, said “parity and equality” in all areas of diversity is “essential” to the company.
Another pain point for several minorities at the brand has been the recent departure of Kris Aman, a former Nike design director who had spent nearly 17 years at the Swoosh before joining Adidas last year as global GM of basketball (according to his LinkedIn profile). Sources told FN that Aman — who many junior-level minorities perceived as the highest-ranking “person of color” at the firm — left in September after being “forced out” because senior management at the company labeled him as “aggressive.” (Attempts to reach Aman for comment have been unsuccessful.)
“We continually evaluate and strengthen our programs and policies to ensure we are recruiting, retaining and advancing a diverse team,” the Adidas spokesperson said. “We have a North America diversity strategy to help bring new employees from diverse backgrounds to positions at the company’s corporate headquarters. We are expanding our Diversity and Inclusion team in North America to focus on underrepresented communities in our workforce; and we are conducting ongoing workplace inclusion training for employees across North America. While we have made progress in these areas, we recognize there is more to be done.”
The company employs nearly 57,000 people.