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Report: human resource managers at Nike ignored complaints from women employees for years

It took an internal revolt to get the company to do something.

A giant sculpture at the Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon.
Natalie Behring/Getty Images

Women working at Nike’s Oregon headquarters had repeatedly complained to human resources managers about demeaning treatment and sexual harassment. They reported male supervisors who called them vulgar names and discussed their bodies, and even one who threw his keys at a subordinate and called her a “stupid bitch.” The women said the complaints to human resources didn’t change anything.

Instead, it took an unofficial internal survey of female employees to get the attention of the athletic apparel company’s top executives, according to a New York Times report, which included interviews with 50 current and former Nike employees.

The report, published Saturday, described a toxic work environment for women, with a boys’ club culture that excluded them from promotions and leadership opportunities. It’s also the latest example of how human resource departments are ill-equipped to investigate discrimination complaints and, in many cases, end up hiding abusive behavior committed by a company’s top executives.

The Times story shows that female employees — alarmed over the departure last year of three high-level female executives — decided to distribute an internal survey to see if women at the company had experienced sexual harassment and other forms of gender discrimination.

On March 5, the survey ended up in the hands of Nike CEO Mark Parker. Though the details of the survey have not been made public, the allegations were bad enough to trigger an internal investigation and a major shake-up in the company’s top ranks, according to reports in March from the Wall Street Journal. Since then, at least six top male executives have left or said they were planning to leave the company, including the president of the Nike Brand, Trevor Edwards, and Jayme Martin, the general manager of global categories.

A spokesperson for Nike downplayed the severity of the allegations against male executives, telling the Times that the problem was limited to a small group of high-level managers who protected each other “and looked the other way.”

The Wall Street Journal first reported about the internal survey last month. Female employees began sharing it internally in the summer of 2017, after three female executives left the company and around the time the head of HR, David Ayre, was fired after several internal investigations into complaints about his condescending behavior.

Women who talked to the Times spoke about their frustration with the behavior and a culture that rewarded men over women. The newspaper reviewed a few of the complaints mentioned in the survey. In one instance, a female employee said she complained to HR about a work-related email from her supervisor in which he made a comment about her breasts. The supervisor was given a verbal warning, and the employee continued reporting to him.

In another case, a woman complained that her supervisor had magazines of scantily clad women on his desk even after he was asked to remove them. She reported him to HR and was admonished for not confronting him about it first.

At least three women had also complained about one manager, Daniel Tawiah, for allegedly berating them in front of their colleagues. Tawiah was promoted to vice president in 2017 and was among the executives who left suddenly in March.

The Times’s story credited a women’s “revolt” at Nike for the remarkable shake-up of the company’s top ranks. But it also prompted some cynicism about the company’s ability to address systemic problems.

“Why did it take an anonymous survey to make change?” Amanda Shebiel, a former Nike employee who left in September after five years at the company, told the Times. “Many of my peers and I reported incidences and a culture that were uncomfortable, disturbing, threatening, unfair, gender-biased and sexist — hoping that something would change that would make us believe in Nike again.”

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