In April 2018, the media was made aware of a problem that had been going on at one of the US’s most respected companies, Nike. It is a humbling setback for a company that is famous worldwide and has built its brand around the inspirational slogan “Just Do It.” While the #MeToo movement has led to the downfall of individual men, the kind of sweeping overhaul that is occurring at Nike is rare in the corporate world, and illustrates how internal pressure from employees is forcing even huge companies to quickly address workplace problems. (New York Times, April 28, 2018)
Here are some of the important, previously undisclosed details (FastCompany, April 28, 2019) : A top executive green-lit an ad that featured a stripper and male athletes in sports bras: Edwards approved the campaign for the launch of the VaporMax shoe for women featuring British singer FKA Twigs. A rough cut featured a woman twirling on a stripper pole and male athletes in sports bras. The ad was eventually killed, but it ended up costing Nike millions. The incident is a compelling example of how Nike’s leadership failed to create campaigns that would resonate with women.
Nike’s HR reps were all too casual about discussing complaints with employees: One employee told human resources that her supervisor tried to kiss her in the bathroom. She was told to meet her representative at the Mia Hamm cafe, an open space on the Nike campus.
Nike sometimes fired employees by Powerpoint: In 2016, Nike stopped making golf balls, clubs, and other equipment. Employees working on these products were asked to come to a meeting, where they watched their names appear on a big screen directing them to different rooms where some of them were laid off. One person told the Times that it left employees with the feeling they were “let go via PowerPoint presentation.”
Men discussed strip clubs and referred to female genitalia in front of female colleagues: The report describes many examples of men creating a workplace culture that was demeaning to women. Three people recalled times when male bosses referred to people using “a vulgar term for women’s genitals” and another time when two male supervisors debated whether Los Angeles or Portland had better strip clubs, in front of female colleagues traveling with them.
A male boss called one of his female employees a “stupid bitch” and kept his job: The employee in question said that this boss also threw his car keys at her. After reporting the incident to human resources, the man continued to supervise her.
When Nike management refused to acknowledge (never mind try to fix) the company’s misogynist culture, female executives used something very simple, yet surprisingly effective to turn things around: a survey (INC, April 30, 2018). The survey, distributed informally among Nike’s female employees, asked respondents whether they had experienced sexual harassment or bias while at the company.
In response to the survey, Parker issued a statement that said, “It has pained me to hear that there are pockets of our company where behaviors inconsistent with our values have prevented some employees from feeling respected and doing their best work.” If it’s really true that he was unaware of these issues, then Parker might qualify as the most clueless leader of a $112 billion corporation the world has ever seen. Women who worked at Nike used everything short of skywriting to alert upper management that something was very wrong. Many made official complaints to HR, often to be told that they themselves were the source of the problem.
After observing men receive coveted promotions over more experienced women, several highly-placed executives left for other companies. And at least one departing high-level executive, Nikki Neuburger, formerly a vice president in global brand marketing, wrote Parker a detailed letter describing the problem and explaining that it had driven her to leave. A Nike spokesperson told The New York Times that Parker had read the letter, “took the letter very seriously” and even met with Neuburger about it.
“Throughout all of this change, we — and I — missed something,” Parker said, according to a transcript of his prepared remarks. “While many of us feel like we’re treated with respect at Nike, that wasn’t the case in all teams. And if all of our teammates don’t see the same opportunities, we just can’t accept that.” (CNBC, May 4, 2018)
“As Nike’s place in the world has become larger and more important, we’ve learned that it isn’t enough to just create amazing products and experiences for the athlete. Our purpose has become greater,” Parker said (The Business Journal, May 4, 2018). “I am responsible for all of Nike and it’s my job, supported by all of you, to help Nike be a place for everyone – both as an empowering place to work and as a brand for all athletes.”
And yet. Male executives went right on filling their business trips with strip club visits. Egregious sexual harassment continued–in one case a male supervisor reportedly forced his way into a bathroom and tried to kiss an employee against her will. When she complained to HR, she was summoned to a meeting to discuss the matter–in a public on-campus cafe, surrounded by other Nike employees.
In August 2018, Nike was hit with a discrimination lawsuit that alleges it pays and promotes women less than their male peers, the latest accusations to take aim at the sneaker giant’s corporate environment (USA Today, August 10, 2018).
Kelly Cahill and Sara Johnston, who say that they endured a hostile work culture at Nike and were paid less and had fewer opportunities than their male colleagues despite a comparable performance. The suit also accuses the company of failing to address sexual harassment and other complaints from female workers. The plaintiffs, say the company’s employment policies are hostile to women.
“The ultimate arbiters of these policies or practices are a small group of high-level executives who are majority male,” the former employees say in the complaint (Fortune, August 11, 2018).
Laura Salerno Owens, an attorney who represents the plaintiffs, said Nike continues to have a “good-old-boys culture” in which women enter the company with lower pay, and receive smaller raises and bonuses. “I think Nike wants to say that ‘Just a couple people were responsible for the problem and we’ve gotten rid of them.’ But we know that’s certainly not the case,” Owens said (CBSNews, August 10, 2018).
Nike’s former head of human resources, David Ayre, has been largely blamed for the department’s repeated failure to act on complaints, but it appears there were many others who, either willingly or not, cooperated with the male-dominated status quo. The lawsuit alleges that “instead of addressing these complaints, HR reinforced and exacerbated the hostile work environment.” (Quatz at work, August 10, 2018)
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