5 Big Allegations in Nike’s Racial Discrimination Suit

The passage of time along with Nike’s public statement of its efforts to correct inequity and behavioral challenges have done little to curtail the stream of lawsuits from former employees against the company.

Just this week, Ahmer Inam, who worked as a senior director in data analytics at Nike, filed suit against the company alleging it racially discriminated against him and subjected him to a “pattern of hostile and intimidating treatment, which differed markedly from the way” some of his white colleagues were treated.

The claim from Inam, who is Indian, is the third in a wave of recent litigation the firm has faced alleging discrimination — but the first to outright accuse the firm of racial discrimination, whereas prior complaints focused on gender. All three filings followed an exposé in The New York Times, which last April highlighted the firm’s “toxic” boys’ club culture. (Although it is not a formal lawsuit, former Nike footwear developer Cecily Schmidt, who is African-American, filed a complaint with Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries alleging discrimination based on her race and sex and a hostile work environment, in October.)

Since the Times article, about a dozen executives exited the brand as CEO Mark Parker admitted the firm had experienced behavioral challenges and may have fallen short in promoting women and people of color. In July, the company said it would raise salaries for 10 percent of its workforce to help correct pay inequity.

But, according to Inam’s attorney, Dana Sullivan, a partner at Buchanan Angeli Altschul & Sullivan LLP, much of the company’s efforts to address internal cultural challenges — including an employee hotline for complaints — have been ineffective.

“Since this time last year, there’s been a lot of focus on how women at the company are treated and the company has paid lip service to putting into effect complaint procedures for employees with concerns of discrimination to come forward,” Sullivan told FN. “What has been lost is any focus on how employees of color are treated in the company. Mr. Inam’s case is illustrative of the fact that while the company pays public lip service to supporting diversity as part of its marketing campaign, it hasn’t done a good job at all of addressing the lack of diversity internally and addressing issues of race discrimination when they arise.”

A spokesperson for Nike declined to comment on the recent suit but noted that “Nike is committed to creating a culture of empowerment and respect where everyone can succeed and contribute to our success.”

Here, we highlight five major allegations in Inam’s lawsuit, in which he is seeking $516,000 in economic damages, $350,000 in non-economic damages and attorney fees.

Staffers Warned of Racial Bias at the Brand

In the 28-page complaint, Inam listed several accomplishments he claims to have made soon after he joined the brand in 2016. Among them, Inam said he was the “first and only analytics leader to become faculty at Nike’s internal Supply Chain University.” Soon after, as Inam’s “effort to improve cooperation among and promote the advanced analytics functions at Nike was gaining traction, a colleague of Mr. Inam’s, who is also a person of color, told Mr. Inam that his ‘stock was rising too fast’ and that Mr. Inam’s visibility was becoming an issue for [a particular manager]. Mr. Inam’s colleague suggested that Mr. Inam should ‘take a step back,’ otherwise he might not survive at the company.”

White Staffers Were Paid More Than Ethnic Minorities

After several allegedly discriminatory experiences of his own as well as discussions with other senior directors in his department, Inam said he “developed a concern that his white peers were paid significantly higher salaries.” He claims he further learned that another executive, a white peer, was offered a salary $75,000 higher than Inam earned, in an effort to retain that peer after he provided notice of his intent to resign. “Inam also discovered that his managers were paying him a salary that was roughly $50,000 less than what the market would dictate for someone with his background, qualifications and experience,” the lawsuit reads.

Ethnic Minorities Were Passed Over for Promotions

Inam claims he was denied the chance to be considered for a new opportunity that he was both interested in and qualified for and that, instead, the company selected a white colleague for the role without a formal interview process. “Mr. Inam was more qualified for the role because he had roughly 20 years of work experience in advanced and predictive analytics. By sharp contrast, [the other executive] had an unrelated reporting and systems implementation background and only 14 years of prior experience. Moreover, Mr. Inam has not one, but two relevant Master of Science degrees, while [the other candidate] possessed only a Bachelor’s degree.”

Recent Efforts to Remedy Behavioral Challenges Have Fallen Short

Following a company-wide meeting last May, in which Parker addressed “widespread concerns within the company regarding discriminatory treatment of female employees” and “urged employees to speak up if they witnessed harassment or discrimination,” Inam said he immediately made a call to Nike’s newly established complaint hotline.

“Mr. Inam received a response to his complaint a few days later, but their only action was to refer Mr. Inam to Employee Relations,” the suit reads. “Mr. Inam had a brief conversation with a Senior Employee Relations Specialist … who provided Mr. Inam with a list of resources but otherwise did not offer to meet with Mr. Inam or intervene to provide any useful assistance.”

HR Attempted to Cover Up Issues

Inam claims that a few days after he revealed his concerns to Nike’s “Matter of Respect” hotline, he had a meeting with an HR executive. That staffer allegedly asked Inam if he had been documenting the conduct of the superior who he suggested had been treating him in a discriminatory matter. Inam claims that when he confirmed that he had been doing so, the HR executive “suggested that Mr. Inam should not document his concerns ‘to the level of detail that it could get someone fired, but just enough so that it could be used as feedback.’”

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