In August 2019, Reebok held an all-staff meeting at its Boston headquarters with several board members from its parent company, German sports giant Adidas. The board members, including Adidas CEO Kasper Rorsted, were there to give Reebok employees a general update, but also to answer questions submitted anonymously by employees ahead of time.
Among the questions put to them was how Adidas and Reebok would address the concerns of non-white and LGBTQ employees who felt discriminated against and overlooked at the company, as had been publicized two months earlier in a New York Times story. It was a sore subject for a number of employees who had been raising the issue for months by the time the meeting occurred.
Karen Parkin, an Adidas board member and its global head of human resources, provided the answer, according to multiple Reebok employees who were at the event. The company, she said, would remain focused on its current path toward gender diversity and a more globalized workforce. She described the concerns about how non-white and LGBTQ employees were treated as “noise” coming only from the organization’s North America offices, in contrast with its global headquarters in Germany and other outposts, and suggested the company didn’t need to address them.
“It sparked quite a lot of outrage,” said Aaron Ture, a US-based Reebok employee who was present at the meeting. For nearly a year, the company didn’t apologize or acknowledge the incident further. Recently, Ture, who is a g– person of color, focused on it as an example of the problems at the organization in an open letter he sent to Adidas’s senior leadership and posted publicly on Instagram.
It was one of several examples of employees lately sending letters throughout the company and posting grievances online. Their public comments have come in reaction to Adidas’s messaging on social media following the widespread protests against historic and ongoing police k–lings of Black Americans, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Sean Reed, and many others. On Instagram, the company condemned racism and called for unity in creating change. The response angered employees such as Julia Bond, an assistant designer at Adidas, who sent a letter to the company’s management on June 3 calling out its complacency on racism internally while publicly claiming to support the Black community. Other employees followed.
Adidas, a European company, relies on Black Americans to buy and promote its products. That community is key to its public image, and by extension to the €23.6 billion ($26.4 billion) in global sales it did in 2019. North America alone made up approximately 22.5% of that business. After employees began speaking out, the company did recently make a public commitment to increase the diversity of its new hires in the US.
Yet multiple employees who spoke to Quartz felt the long inaction on racism and discrimination in the company was related to Adidas’s leadership. Ture, who has been at the company nearly three years, said in that time the company has been slow to take genuine action, even though he believed some members of its leadership did recognize the need to reform the workplace culture. “The board is the driving force for change,” he said. “It is very apparent that change hasn’t happened. I do account that to some part to Karen, because this is her role.”
After Quartz reached out to Adidas for comment, a spokesperson confirmed that Parkin apologized on the company’s internal messaging channels this morning. “At a company meeting in Boston last year, in response to a question regarding a media report about adidas, I made a comment regarding how our company at that time viewed issues of race within our North American headquarters, I should have chosen a better word,” her statement said. “As the Executive Board Member responsible for HR, it was my responsibility to make clear our definitive stance against discrimination, and this I did not. Should I have offended anyone, I apologize.”
The internal message also promised that her team is committed to improving equity, diversity, and opportunity at Adidas.
Parkin, who was born in England and also holds an American passport, joined Adidas in 1997 as a sales director in the UK. She rose through the different roles in the company’s business and supply chain operations, until becoming its chief human resources officer in late 2014. She was appointed to the company’s executive board in 2017.
One employee involved with the company’s senior leadership, who would only speak on condition of anonymity, pointed to both Parkin and Rorsted as the root of the inaction on complaints of racism and discrimination at Adidas. This person described them as the two most powerful figures in the company, and said while much of the staff and leadership are passionate about the need to increase racial and ethnic representation, the pair have not made it a priority. According to the employee, Rorsted has been most concerned with Adidas’s financials—particularly in the present moment, when the Covid-19 crisis is hitting Adidas’s business—and the employee believed Parkin hasn’t understood the need for racial and ethnic diversity.
“They’re the ones that are ultimately going to approve or deny anything,” the employee said. “Others are generally supportive. I think the naysayers outright are Kasper and Karen, who don’t get it.” The employee noted that a recent email from the company’s corporate HR office, which they described as answering to Parkin and Rorsted, mandated there be “no statements from senior leaders” made on the protests decrying racial injustice.
Adidas disputed this characterization of its leadership. “Adidas and Reebok have always been and will always be against discrimination in all forms and stand united against racism,” the company said in a statement. It declined to comment on internal conversations or email exchanges but said leaders in the company had been communicating with employees and noted it held virtual meetings with all Adidas and Reebok employees to update them on its commitments against racism.
Still, for some time now, people of color within the company and those sympathetic to their concerns have only been growing more frustrated.