Nike Goes the Distance for Equality

by HRC Staff

CEO Bill Perez Talks Shop with HRC President Joe Solmonese

Quality running shoes aren't the only reason to like Nike. The company has scored 100 percent on HRC's Corporate Equality Index for the last four years and also supports implementing federal protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender workers. Plus, Nike spoke out on why a bill in its home state of Oregon, that would protect workers and establish civil unions, was good for business. Recently, HRC President Joe Solmonese spoke with new Nike CEO Bill Perez, who previously, as head of S.C. Johnson, helped lead its employees to form a GLBT business council.

Solmonese: In filling the role of CEO after Phil Knight, how do you think, given your past experience, you will be able to advance GLBT equality in the Nike community?

Perez: Nike takes its commitment to diversity very seriously, and that was important to me as I considered the opportunity to come on board. Given Nike's past wins in the area of developing policies and programs to support the GLBT community, I knew I'd come to the right place. Nike strives to be an employer of choice and to make diversity a competitive advantage. These are aspirations I believe in too, and in my new role I am looking to champion such issues.

Solmonese: What personal stories and/or experiences have helped you to better understand the issues of the GLBT community?

Perez: Many years ago I was tracking the career of an employee who accepted a position that would have required him to move from Miami to Los Angeles. What I didn't know at the time was that he had AIDS. In the end he turned down the promotion and remained in his current position. He told me the decision was for the sake of staying in Miami, where he had built a network of support that included colleagues, friends and family and that was critical to him as he battled his illness. I learned a lot about the importance of support, and of community, from this man's experience. It opened my eyes and made me aware of the role workplace culture can play in the lives of GLBT employees facing a range of issues.

Solmonese: Nike is one of a very few companies who supported Oregon Senate Bill 1000, a non-discrimination and civil unions bill. Was this a step that you found difficult to do - given the lack of initiative and support from other large businesses?

Perez: Nike started in Oregon and has deep roots in the state. As an Oregonian, albeit still a relatively new one, it's clear to me that Oregonians look to Nike to be out front on issues of fairness and equality. We took a stand because it was the right thing to do - for our employees, and for our business partners and consumers who reflect today's marketplace. And it's a significant part of our ability to recruit, hire and retain the very best employees.

Solmonese: Discuss any public reaction you received, either positive or negative, in response to supporting Oregon Senate Bill 1000. How has Nike responded to this reaction?

Perez: In the spring of 2005, Nike took a public stand in support of Oregon Senate Bill 1000, which would create civil unions by protecting GLBT citizens from discrimination and affirming hundreds of basic rights for same-sex couples. Although we received some negative form letter e-mails, we also received many messages thanking us for our support. We never expected everyone to agree with us, but we always knew we were doing the right thing. We believe in fair and equal rights for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation. You only have to look as far as the asterisk in our mission statement, which states, "If you have a body, you're athlete," to understand that Nike is about inclusion and opportunity for everyone.

Solmonese: Do you think passage of this bill would have affected members of the Nike GLBT community?

Perez: Nike has already reviewed existing law and aligned its policies and practices in an effort to offer many benefits to permanent partners, including an adoption benefit and expanded benefits to children in those relationships. Had Oregon Senate Bill 1000 passed (the Oregon legislative session ended in August without a vote on the bill), many non-discrimination laws would have been amended to protect GLBT citizens from discrimination. In addition, many of our GLBT employees and their partners would have had the ability to enter into civil unions with the recognition of the state of Oregon. Nike's Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender and Friends Network, which was established in 1998, served as the central channel for employees when the bill was being proposed. We connected and worked with local advocacy groups, such as Basic Rights Oregon, on this issue.

Solmonese: Sheryl Swoopes recently came out of the closet. Nike stood by Sheryl, maintaining its endorsement. Any advice to GLBT athletes as they face the decision to come out?

Perez: Nike was one of the first companies to acknowledge GLBT issues and did so in a very public way in 1994 when we developed a "Just Do It" TV ad featuring HIV-positive marathoner Ric Muñoz. The commercial was met with wide acclaim, and set the tone for Nike's commitment to diversity and belief in inclusion for all athletes. So my advice to GLBT athletes as they face the decision to come out is to recognize that the conversation they're embarking on will likely be a public one. But it's an important one and critical to the ongoing advocacy of the GLBT community. Sheryl has our continued support. She has been, and still is, an exceptional athlete and we are proud to have her represent the brand.

Solmonese: Professional sports leagues are considered to be some of the last organizations where it is acceptable for one to be out. How can Nike help to change the environment of professional sports to be more accepting of its GLBT members?

Perez: One way we can help change attitudes about coming out in the world of sports is by welcoming GLBT athletes to campus to share with us their particular challenges and successes. Earlier this year, we welcomed former Major League Baseball player Billy Bean, who hid his sexual orientation until after he left the league, to speak to Nike employees. He was candid about the stereotypes and barriers in professional baseball, and made it clear that being up front is the first step to advocacy. For me, ultimately changing the game for GLBT athletes in professional sports is about standing by and supporting them as they go through the difficult decision to come out.
Solmonese: Have you extended your policies so that they can be effective on the factory floor?

Perez: This fall, I traveled to Memphis, which houses Nike's largest U.S. distribution centers, for our annual shareholders meeting. One of the things I learned on that visit is that Nike's GLBT&F Network is active there, but hasn't always been. I was excited to learn that with the support of leadership and involvement of the community affairs team, the Memphis GLBT&F Network is building its membership and participating in local events. This to me is an example of tackling issues facing the GLBT community and working to find solutions where they occur, recognizing that the distribution center environment is very different from a corporate office. We need to approach the issues differently according to those cultural differences.

Solmonese: What else is Nike doing for the GLBT community?

Perez: In addition to our non-discrimination policy and domestic partner benefits, including adoption, which we've offered since 1994, Nike continues to drive advocacy both inside the company and in the community. The internal GLBT&F Network website, hosted by human resources and the Office of Global Diversity, is the first stop for employees. It serves as a point of reference for monthly activities and meetings of the network, organizations and resources such as HRC and community celebrations like the National Coming Out Day, which employees participate in annually. Nike also sponsors several local events, including last September's AIDS Walk in Portland, organized by the Cascade AIDS Project, which I had the opportunity to kick off.

Solmonese: How has the HRC Workplace Project helped you achieve your GLBT workplace equality goals?

Perez: The Workplace Project has reinforced for us where we need to be with regard to holding a leadership position in the GLBT community as an employer. It's a challenge we're committed to meeting each year, and exceeding whenever we can. The project has also been a great resource for the GLBT&F Network, which is now focusing on strengthening its relationships with straight allies as well. One of the things we're working on now is making sure that our workplace is more comfortable for transgender employees, and for those who are transitioning.

Solmonese: Any advice for other CEO's who are facing important decisions regarding extending benefits and protections to GLBT employees?

Perez: I'd say to get out there, meet members of the GLBT community at your company and beyond, and listen. Nike's record on extending benefits and protection to GLBT employees was set when I came here, but the dialogue is still happening each and every day around continuing to support and foster a workplace culture of inclusion so all employees can continue to thrive both as professionals and as individuals. This is not only a conversation about diversity, it's a conversation about becoming and maintaining the position as an employer of choice - this is something I feel very strongly about since it defines your brand for your employees and for society.
The other advice I'll offer is to state your commitment to diversity - say it out loud, and your employees will listen. In my first address to Nike employees, I spoke about the values that were important to me. I spoke about diversity, and how my commitment to Nike is to create a place of inclusion that respects all employees, regardless of age, race, gender, ability and sexual orientation. I can't tell you how many employees came up to me afterward, to tell me what it meant to hear the words "sexual orientation" out loud from their CEO.

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