Over the last two days, the sportswear giant Adidas has made several promises to black employees.
The company said that 30 percent of new hires would be black or Latino. It pledged to fund 50 university scholarships a year for black students over the next five years. And in an employee call on Wednesday, Zion Armstrong, the president of Adidas in North America, said the company would expand funding for programs that address racial disparities to $120 million over the next five years.
But for some black employees, missing from all of the pronouncements this week was what they had been pushing for internally: an acknowledgment by company executives that Adidas had a problem with racism and discrimination, and an explicit apology for that treatment.
Late Wednesday afternoon, some black employees felt vindicated when Adidas put up a statement on Instagram, saying the company would be nothing without “Black athletes, Black artists, Black employees and Black consumers.”
“We’ve celebrated athletes and artists in the Black community and used their image to define ourselves culturally as a brand, but missed the message in reflecting such little representation within our walls,” the social media post said.
The tone on a call among 130 mostly black employees inside the company shortly after the social media post went up was celebratory, according to several people on the call, coming after what had been a particularly tumultuous period. But it did not totally satisfy everyone.
“It did acknowledge us and did own up a bit, but to me it is a devastating miss not to just say sorry,” said Kevin Wright, an Adidas gaming employee.
The unrest inside Adidas began two weeks ago when many black employees and their supporters were frustrated by the public response of the company, which has its global headquarters in Germany, to the protests rippling across the world following the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died while a white police officer knelt on his neck.
Dozens of employees ceased working and instead attended daily protests held outside of the company’s North American headquarters in Portland, Ore. Others posted on social media, detailing their experiences with discrimination in the workplace and arguing that the company’s words — its public anti-discrimination stance — did not match its actions.
A coalition of mostly black employees worked through the weekend with white leadership in Portland, creating a set of goals and a plan for achieving them.
Believing they were close to achieving a breakthrough, members of the coalition even drafted a statement this week for the company’s board of directors in Germany to sign off on. It included an acknowledgment of its problems with racism and would offer an official apology.
Instead, the company released a statement on Tuesday that said 30 percent of new hires would be black or Latino and pledged to invest in scholarships for black students and programs that benefited the black community, but omitted any references to internal discrimination, angering many employees. On Wednesday’s call, Mr. Armstrong expanded on Tuesday’s statement but offered no corporate apology.
Adidas declined to comment beyond its statements.
The unrest inside Adidas may have followed the global protests, but many black workers have long felt discriminated against by their employer and disillusioned with the company’s leadership.
Last year, The New York Times found that in 2018 only 4.5 percent of the 1,700 employees on the Portland campus identified themselves as black, and only about 1 percent of the more than 300 of the worldwide vice presidents were black. Black employees often felt marginalized and sometimes discriminated against by the largely white executives in Portland. Two employees said they were referred to with a racist slur by white co-workers.
Adidas’s internal struggles with race run counter to its outward embrace of black culture and sports, particularly through its high-profile partnerships with entertainers like Beyoncé, Kanye West and Pharrell Williams and athletes, including the N.B.A. stars James Harden and Damian Lillard. Those relationships have translated into sales among black and Hispanic youth for Adidas.
“It is sad when this company is fueled by the culture outside, but inside there is a limitation on black talent because we are only good for that information extracted,” said Aric Armon, an Adidas footwear designer.
On Tuesday, the company banned the use of the word “asset” when referring to people, including sponsored athletes and entertainers, noting the word is offensive to cultures that have been enslaved. The announcement slide included a picture of Mr. Harden, noting, “You are an athlete, not an asset.”
Frustration inside the company rose at the end of last month.
On May 29, Nike posted a 60-second video on its social media accounts that implored, “Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America.” The next day, Adidas retweeted Nike’s social media campaign.
The company scrambled to come up with its own response. Later that day Reebok, a Boston-based footwear company owned by Adidas, posted on social media that “Without the black community, Reebok would not exist.” Two hours later, Adidas put its statement on Instagram: an image of the word “Racism” crossed out. It was not well received inside the company.
Adidas, aware of growing unrest among employees, said that June 2 would be a “Day of Reflection,” and that employees should not have any meetings that day.
Julia Bond, who joined the company last year as an assistant apparel designer, used part of the day to write a letter to executives in Portland, asking for an apology for the racism and discrimination that she says has been “enabled and perpetuated” at the company.
The next day, Ms. Bond emailed her letter to Adidas leadership in North America. That afternoon, she began reaching out to the news media, taking her letter and story public.
“Adidas likes to keep it really quiet,” Ms. Bond said. “Keep it anonymous. I decided it was time to put a face to this problem. But it was very frightening and quite daunting to do that.”
Inspired by Ms. Bond, Mr. Armon sent a letter to his bosses detailing his experience with a white co-worker who used a racial slur. He also posted it publicly on Instagram.
“This is the time to stop it,” he said. “There is momentum like there has never been before. I want to make sure this brand is better after I leave than when I got in.”
While Adidas began holding company calls about racism and discrimination, a coalition of about a dozen mostly black employees inside the company put together a 32-page presentation that included a list of demands. It called for more diversity among employees and investment in the black community, along with timelines for when they should be accomplished.
Another group of employees made plans to strike until their demands were met. Some employees refused to work last Friday and on Monday, and others began a daily noon protest outside the company’s Portland offices — the first time many employees had seen one another in person in months because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Adidas executives in Portland, including Mr. Armstrong, began communicating with the coalition of employees who put together the presentation about its demands. Over the weekend, the two sides tried to formulate how to best bring about real, significant change inside Adidas.
The results of those meetings were sent to the Adidas board in Germany, while discussions and negotiations in Portland continued through Monday evening. Members of the employee group believed they were on the cusp of having many of their demands met and that they would finally see Adidas apologize and pledge to improve.
They were left disappointed by Tuesday’s announcement by Adidas and Wednesday’s statement by Mr. Armstrong.
But the mood shifted once again with Adidas’s posting on Wednesday. Many saw it as a hard-won victory, a big step by the company to admitting the problem.
But others said something was still missing.
“This is a great first step,” said Aaron Ture, a product manager for footwear at Reebok who is biracial and has worked for Adidas for three years. Mr. Ture also wrote a letter to the company in recent days about his experiences and concerns with the company. “But we can only start to build this future once we have sorted out the past.”