In conversations about corporate diversity and inclusion, Nike Inc. is often touted as being one of the more advanced in its journey. However, the social media page “Black at Nike,” which compiles stories of purported worker experiences at the Swoosh, paints a picture of a company that has, in the past, struggled to uphold its high standards across a sweeping global operation.
“I used to work at the Nike Employee Store and my [manager] would call me a different name EVERY SINGLE DAY,” reads one post on the Instagram page. “I would always correct him and he would knowingly still do it.”
Another social media user recounts: “From 2015 – 2018 I worked at Nike The Grove. Prior to store opening in the morning we were allowed to play music in the stockroom. One day, a white manager came into the stockroom, laughed and said, ‘You guys are always playing black people music — don’t you listen to anything else? … this manager was reported twice to HR for their racist and insensitive comments. They still work there today.”
As decades of racial tensions came to a head across the U.S. in May, and the killing of George Floyd in swift fashion reinvigorated the Black Lives Matter movement, fashion firms joined the fray in droves to acknowledge that they, too, have a diversity and inclusion problem.
And of course they do.
People and organizations don’t exist for years in a country whose history is rich in racism and oppression of Black, indigenous and LGBTQ people without some level of assimilation and compliance to the systems that are in place.
Amid widespread protests over racial injustice and police brutality in June, Nike — known for its provocative marketing and early support of the BLM movement — was arguably among the first major footwear players to send a staunch message regarding racism in America: “For once, don’t do it.”
That moment was followed by a $140 million commitment from the company and longtime partner Michael Jordan toward the fight for racial equality. Then, in a June 11 memo sent to Nike Inc. staffers and obtained by FN, CEO John Donahoe said the company was ampliflying its efforts around diversity and inclusion in a bid to get its “house in order.” Nike, noted Donahoe, would now focus on four key areas to improve race relations internally: representation, professional development, inclusion and belonging and education. (The company, at the time, led the corporate movement to acknowledge Juneteenth as a paid company holiday.)
“As I have listened deeply during my first six months and over the past few weeks, what I have learned is that many have felt a disconnect between our external brand and your internal experience,” he wrote to employees. “You have told me that we have not consistently supported, recognized and celebrated our own Black teammates in a manner they deserve. This needs to change.”
However, changing a company’s organization at the cellular level is an ambitious undertaking. For one, legislating the treatment of retail store employees — whose roles tend to have a lower barrier of entry than those of corporate staffers — can be particularly challenging for brands, which, according to Darla DeGrace, a D&I strategist and founder of Boston-based DeGrace Group, can have a blindspot for store associates.
“Retail store employees are treated like second-class citizens,” explained DeGrace. “They don’t even have their own [company] email addresses. How can they effectively surface racial complaints or give feedback? If people of color at the corporate level feel marginalized, imagine how our black and brown retail associates feel.”
Kevin Nadal, a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an expert in microaggression theory, defines microaggressions as “commonplace verbal, behavioral or environmental actions that communicate hostility toward oppressed or targeted groups.”
Where race is concerned, microaggressions often show up as assumptions of criminality and intellectual inferiority on the part of a group of people — or criticism of a person of a certain race for their communication styles, behaviors and styles of dress, noted Nadel in a 2014 paper titled “A Guide to Responding to Microaggressions.”
“Retail stores, like all other professional cultures, have employee-to-employee microaggressions,” explained Kyle Rudy, SVP at executive placement firm Kirk Palmer & Associates. “Yet, also in a frontline store role, employees also face microaggressions from customers, like assuming a Black employee is not the store manager but a stock person. And there are employee interactions with customers that negatively impact both the shopper and other employees of color who observe them.”
Nike, spokesperson Sandra Carreon-John told FN today, has been working aggressively over the past few years to enhance D&I as well as overall race relations across all levels of its organization. Among its programs Carreon-John said is a “Speak Up” portal, which “offers employees the opportunity to report concerns, ask questions or follow up on issues they’ve raised.” (The website can be used anonymously.) Nike’s “Matter of Respect” policy, she added, explicitly prohibits discrimination, retaliation and harassment in the workplace, and if there are behaviors that violate this, employees can raise the issue with their managers directly, use the Speak Up portal or speak directly with HR or Employee Relations.
Where microaggressions and unconscious bias are concerned, Nike has been working on that, too, she said.
“We rolled out Unconscious Bias Awareness training to our North America field teams in October 2019,” Carreon-John added. “It includes five Huddle guides delivered to teams for three weeks to educate on culture of belonging. We also conduct digital training and provide leaders with conversation guides and Unconscious Bias Awareness tools to continue the conversation throughout the year.”
Still, there are a number of reasons these stubborn behaviors continue to crop up across organizations — chief among them is this simple fact: Scores of racist and misinformed people live and work in America every day.
And, try as they may (and not all of them are trying), brands will face an uphill climb in weeding out bigotry and prejudice. Meanwhile, firms like Nike — with its long history of pro-Black messaging — will always carry the highest burden in seeking to remedy these issues.
“Managing microaggressions when observed in a workplace, one would hope could be handled by management through education, yet many people simply do not recognize or understand them,” noted Rudy. “So unfairly, the education ends up being placed on the shoulders of those who experience the microaggression. So there is sometimes a burden put on people to decide ‘of the many microaggressions I experience, is this one I want to speak up about?’ and weigh the risks and rewards.”
A significant amount of D&I discourse points to the prevalence of microaggressions in high-level corporate spaces — i.e. the Black board member who is an “only” and is occasionally subjected to insensitive commentary from his/her peers. As the sole Black person who has broken through systemic barriers, a minority staffer may feel less inclined to rock the boat, even if he or she is better positioned to drive change.
For store-level employees, often, there isn’t so much as a boat to rock.
Some estimates put retail store turnover rates as high as 60%. With such an active revolving door, DeGrace said many managers don’t take their store employees seriously. Meanwhile, many employees, who view their retail stints as temporary, may not feel compelled to use resources, where they do exist, to speak up.
Nike, like many of its industry peers, sees a significant concentration of minority employees at the lower levels of the company (i.e. in retail stores) and those diversity levels fall off at the higher ranks.
According to its 2019 “Nike Impact” report, 21.6% of the firm’s employees are Black, while about 10% of its VPs are Black (up from 8% in 2018) and 4.8% are at the director level or higher (up from 4.5% in 2018).
For what it’s worth, Nike has steadily made progress on many of its D&I goals. In fact, the biggest advancement can be seen on its corporate board, which went from 23% Black in 2018, to 31% in 2019. (The company, unlike many of its peers, also paid retail associates throughout the pandemic-induced store closures.)
Amid the current heightened national attention on race, companies across the U.S. are being asked by consumers and thought leaders to espouse their diversity makeup, i.e. what percentage of their teams are Black, White, Asian, Hispanic and “other.”
But beyond those figures, what can be said of how Black and other minority people actually feel when they go to work at companies across the country?
That’s tough to measure.
Racism, harassment and implicit bias are all tough to measure.
How does a brand screen for stupidity? And when ignorance rears its head, what’s the best way to combat it?
Rudy notes a common pitfall for firms when tracking their progress is to rely too heavily on numeric data. As a result, a high percentage of minority employees at the store level — or any level — can signal to a company that it has “achieved diversity.”
“The company looks at this data and thinks ‘we don’t need to have a robust D&I strategy for our stores’— but inclusion does not equate to the number of minorities hired and/or employed,” Rudy explained. “Companies have to think about equity, inclusion and belonging in addition to diversity.”
What that looks like, notes Rudy, is a hiring process that delves into D&I from day one. It also involves a feedback-oriented culture, active “bystander training” and the normalizing of “outing people,” said DeGrace.
What’s more, she explained, when companies are thinking about their diversity strategy — mulling ideas such as culture, marketing pipeline-building, employee resource groups and other internal resources — they must “keep that same energy across every level.”