What Adidas employees are asking for, and why all companies should listen

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​German sportswear brand Adidas has been in the headlines after employees sent a report to executives and held a series of protests alleging that existing checks and measures to tackle inequality at the firm do not work.

With so many companies, Adidas among them, standing in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter, the focus has been on what actions companies will take beyond their words. At Adidas, 83 employees signed a letter calling on its officials to get their own house in order.

One of the immediate demands in this letter speaks to the heart of a problem plaguing corporations the world over in every sector. An extract from CNN, which saw the letter, asks for the “creation of an anonymous platform where employees can report instances of racism and discrimination, and for protection against retaliation.”

In follow up news articles, Adidas revealed that it already has in place the "go-to" solution for many large enterprises: a hotline. Indeed, hotlines have been “ticking the box” for compliance and HR professionals for years, decades even, with little innovation and little, if any, input from the people they are supposed to protect.

Of course, they have tried to move with the times and rolled out some clunky webforms that exist on a third-party portal, but really they have only ever been a low-effort solution to appease a requirement that employees have a place to raise concerns.

The Adidas employees’ letter revealed a simple truth: this outdated system isn’t working anymore, if it ever did. There is an argument to say that hotlines were never intended to ‘work’, they were merely there to check a box. But as a tool they have so many disincentives stacked against them it’s a miracle they are ever used at all.

The thought of people reporting devastating issues to someone in a call centre is ridiculous, and by the hotline providers’ own admissions, the minimum - around 11% - of reports come through the hotline. This means not only that the hotline doesn't help, it’s part of the problem.

If employees know the hotline exists they then need to find the number. They dial in to a call centre staffed by people who handle calls from multiple clients and make their case to a third party employee who has zero vested interest in the company in question. This model also relies on employees calling in with ‘big bang’ incidents to report in order to make the process seem worth the effort.

But as the dialogue around misconduct, including discrimination and harassment, at work has evolved one of the many things we’ve learned is that these problems are constant and systemic.

Words like ‘microaggressions’ and ‘micro-incivilities’ have become part of the HR lexicon and refer to the fact that the challenge might not be a single high-impact incident that prompts a complaint, but a series of smaller slights that wear away at someone over a period of time. It’s the argument that sits very much at the heart of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

This has been going on for too long already and the supposed ‘solutions’ have never been effective. Employees the world over know this, they know the tools and processes don’t work. Now is the time for employers to acknowledge this and do something about it, or if they haven’t yet acknowledged this now is the time to wake up.

If movements like MeToo and BLM have shown us anything it’s that employee patience has run out and there is a growing appetite to fight for accountability out in the public domain - on social media and in the press.

Companies can avoid this, but the time to act is now. Companies should, and some do, want to hear from their people what’s really happening on the ground. They want to get a head’s up on problems before they grow out of control.

The way people interact with each other and systems has changed - mobile apps are the go-to for most things now. New technologies have evolved, which offer essential psychological safety and empower people to speak up and report and resolve misconduct internally within their companies.

Racism and discrimination can be stopped if companies invest in systemic internal change and open up to innovation in this space. Words don’t cut it anymore, a brand is measured by the impact of its actions.

Neta Meidav is CEO and co-founder of Vault Platform

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