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Adidas asks employees to share personal data in diversity push

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Adidas will ask employees to voluntarily share personal data about their ethnicity, nationality, gender identity and sexual orientation as part of efforts to improve diversity at the company.

Amanda Rajkumar, head of human resources at the world’s second-biggest sportswear group, disclosed the data-gathering project in her first interview since joining the Nike-rival in January.

The initiative — a first for a German blue-chip — is a contentious subject in a country haunted by the Nazi government’s persecution and killing of citizens for their ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation, and where people today are particularly protective of their privacy and data.

“We are in a German company and I know that [the data collection] makes everyone very nervous,” said Rajkumar, who joined Adidas from the French bank BNP Paribas, where she ran human resources in the US.

Participation will be voluntary and while the information will be used “to measure progress”, rather than to make decisions, she said that even the act of tracking data will mean change, as it will ultimately influence promotion opportunities and career paths.

The data collection initiative is part of the German company’s response to protests by US employees over racial inequality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis last year.

Hundreds of employees protested for weeks in the summer of 2020 at the group’s US headquarters in Portland, Oregon, calling on the company to take more action to tackle workplace inequality and discrimination.

In a letter in June last year to the supervisory board, US staff also lambasted the company, which is based in Herzogenaurach, close to Nuremberg in southern Germany, for disregarding racism.

Adidas initially rejected the allegations, but the company’s then-head of HR Karen Parkin eventually resigned following criticism that she had described discussions on racism as “noise” in 2019.

Her successor, Rajkumar — who is UK-born to West Indian parents, and was a psychologist before switching to HR — said the employee protests triggered “a sizeable shift in the culture” within Adidas.

Over the past year, it has become clear to senior management at Adidas that creating a more inclusive culture is now mandatory, rather than simply “nice to have”, she said.

“I think that was a big, big change in the company,” said Rajkumar, who is glad to have people working at Adidas who “feel they can speak up”.

Since the second half of 2020, nearly all of the company’s 62,000 employees have completed 30 hours of training on diversity, equity and inclusion. Adidas has hired the American Olympic Gold medallist Edwin Moses as an external adviser, and chief executive Kasper Rorsted is co-chairing a new diversity, equity and inclusion council.

The main argument for more diversity is that less homogenous teams deliver better results, said Rajkumar, pointing to significant research in this area.

Increasing diverse representation at Adidas and making the culture more inclusive is a way to avoid perpetuating societal imbalances.

“Society is not equal [and] people are born differently. We want to make sure that we’re not replicating that within the walls of Adidas,” she said.

The company is still “pretty behind” on gender equality, acknowledged Rajkumar, who is the only woman among the six members of the executive board.

By 2025, the company wants to lift the share of women in senior executive roles from 35 to 40 per cent, she said. This does not mean compromising on staff qualifications and expertise, however: “We’re certainly not looking at lowering the bar. We’re looking at widening the gate.”

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