When Nike management refused to acknowledge (never mind try to fix) the company's misogynist culture, female executives used something very simple, yet surprisingly effective to turn things around: a survey. The survey, distributed informally among Nike's female employees, asked respondents whether they had experienced sexual harassment or bias while at the company. 

In March, they delivered the completed surveys to Nike CEO Mark Parker. Within a few weeks, six high-level male executives announced they were leaving the company, including Trevor Edwards president of the Nike brand, who had been widely expected to take over as CEO of the company within two years. The dismissals came about after a review by an outside firm, according to some reports. Either way, they prove how powerful this humble tool that's available to everyone can be if you use it right.

In response to the survey, Parker issued a statement that said, "It has pained me to hear that there are pockets of our company where behaviors inconsistent with our values have prevented some employees from feeling respected and doing their best work." If it's really true that he was unaware of these issues, then Parker might qualify as the most clueless leader of a $112 billion corporation the world has ever seen. Women who worked at Nike used everything short of skywriting to alert upper management that something was very wrong. Many made official complaints to HR, often to be told that they themselves were the source of the problem. After observing men receive coveted promotions over more experienced women, several highly-placed executives left for other companies. And at least one departing high-level executive, Nikki Neuburger, formerly a vice president in global brand marketing, wrote Parker a detailed letter describing the problem and explaining that it had driven her to leave. A Nike spokesperson told The New York Times that Parker had read the letter, "took the letter very seriously" and even met with Neuburger about it.

And yet. Male executives went right on filling their business trips with strip club visits. Egregious sexual harassment continued--in one case a male supervisor reportedly forced his way into a bathroom and tried to kiss an employee against her will. When she complained to HR, she was summoned to a meeting to discuss the matter--in a public on-campus cafe, surrounded by other Nike employees. Whether that was an attempt to make her soften or retract her story, or just a supreme example of thoughtlessness, the survey turned out to be an effective way to get a company with an entrenched "bro" culture to begin taking sexual harassment and gender discrimination more seriously. Here's why it worked so well:

1. People with complaints can no longer be isolated.

In companies that tolerate workplace harassment, it's common practice for HR to isolate those who complain, telling them they are the only ones to complain, and suggesting that it's their own fault. According to former Uber engineer Susan Fowler, this took on almost comical proportions at that company, where she banded together with several other women who'd all been harassed by the same supervisor, so they could take their complaints to HR as a group. HR representatives first insisted on only meeting the women one at a time, and then proceeded to tell each of them that "no one else had ever complained." Presumably, they said this with a straight face, although I'm not sure how. If you conduct a survey and share its results, then no one can tell you that nobody else has a problem. 

2. A survey is data.

An individual complaint is easy enough to set aside, but a survey, especially one with more than a few respondents, is a data point. We live in a world that has new respect for data, especially since so many successful companies owe their success to their ability to quickly gather data and then use that data to make better decisions. When you present data that proves harassment is a problem, that's pretty hard to ignore. 

Data has another appealing quality in that anything that can be measured once can be measured again later. That holds out the hope that if Nike works to solve its problems, a follow-up survey might show some improvement. That can create at least some incentive to improve things.

3. A survey is news.

Uber's pervasive sexual harassment would never have gotten broad attention if it hadn't been for Susan Fowler's memo about her own experiences, and the fact that the memo went viral. And that likely would not have happened except that Fowler is a high-profile figure in the software development world. But because a survey is data, it's newsworthy in itself. It was the survey about women's experiences at Nike that first caught the attention of major newspapers, even though the women who conducted it did not share the survey results with any media. In part, that's likely because Parker finally took their concerns to heart and is taking action to change Nike's culture by dismissing what he seems to believe were the most problematic executives at the company. Perhaps he would have taken action anyway--I'd like to think that he would have. But he likely knew something else: That if he didn't act, those anonymous surveys could just as easily have landed on a reporter's desk instead of his.

Published on: Apr 30, 2018