After Nike ou-sted a handful of male executives for behaviour issues over the past few months, some media reports tied the departures to the #MeToo movement and its revelations of sexual harassment and assault. Interviews with more than a dozen former Nike employees, including senior executives, however, paint a picture of a workplace contaminated by a different behaviour: corporate bullying.
The workers say the sneaker giant could be a bruising place for both men and women, and that females did bullying, too. On May 8, Nike signaled as much when it confirmed four more exits stemming from an internal misconduct inquiry, including the departure of a woman with more than 20 years at the company.
The surprise announcement in March that 55-year-old Nike brand president Trevor Edwards—who had a reputation for humiliating subordinates in meetings—would leave following an internal investigation about workplace behavior issues suggests the coddling of tough guys may have come to an end. “Some companies are realising that a bullying boss isn’t the best way to manage a company,” says David Yamada, a professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston who’s authored antibullying legislation. “Maybe we’re starting to see a tipping point.”
Gary Namie, co-founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute, who consults with businesses on workplace issues, says one reason some companies have long tolerated or even encouraged such behaviour is that many American managers believe the workplace is by nature rough around the edges. “Bullying is inextricably interwoven with capitalism,” he says. “It creates a zero-sum, competitive work environment where people feel they need to obliterate their competitors.”
Some former employees say that was the case at Nike, particularly among managers who used abusive tactics to safeguard their own position or authority. “There are a lot of very talented people deeper in the organisation who have been marginalised both by senior and middle management trying to protect their domain,” says Shaz Kahng, who was a senior executive at Nike for six years through 2010. “People are often promoted based on relationships, not on results.”
In response to complaints, including from departing female executives, Nike ousted Edwards, who’d been a favourite to become the company’s next CEO. Edwards, according to some of the former employees, at times bullied workers through insults and disparaging comments. More important, once he set the tone, other people mirrored his behaviour, they say. A handful of executives who worked for Edwards have since left Nike.
“I’ve been disturbed to hear from some employees of behaviour inconsistent with our values,” CEO Mark Parker said in an emailed statement. “When we disco-ver issues, we take action.”
Nike also provided Bloomberg with the transcript of a town hall Parker held on May 3, in which he vowed the environment will change. “We all have an obligation—and it’s non-negotiable—to create and cultivate an environment of respect and inclusion,” he told employees.
The company declined to make Edwards available for an interview.