Former Nike Employee Sues Company for Racial Discrimination

Ahmer Inam alleges he was paid less than white coworkers and mistreated by managers

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A former Nike executive is suing the company for racial discrimination, which he says was chronic and eventually forced him out of a job. Ahmer Inam, who was senior director of advanced analytics at Nike North America until his departure in December 2018, is seeking $866,000 in financial and other damages including psychological harm.

The suit alleges that Inam, who is of Indian descent, was passed up for promotions, paid significantly less than his white counterparts and regularly subjected to unfair treatment by the company and his managers because of his race. His former managers—senior director of North America marketplace analytics Gail Cornelius and vp of global marketplace analytics Drew Carpenter—are also named in the suit.

Carpenter and Cornelius did not reply to emails seeking comment. Through a spokeswoman, Nike declined to talk about the case but emphasized its support of employees.

“We can’t comment on the recently filed complaint, but Nike is committed to creating a culture of empowerment and respect where everyone can succeed and contribute to our success,” the spokeswoman said in an email to Adweek.

Inam joined Nike in October 2015 to spearhead the formation of the advanced analytics division and built Nike’s first advanced analytics community, according to the lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday in the Circuit Court for Oregon’s Multnomah County.

During his first two years with the company, Inam reported to Heather Paulson, senior director of Nike’s digital marketplace and new commerce partnerships, who the suit says consistently gave Inam rave performance reviews and recommended his promotion to the senior director of advanced analytics North America, which occurred in March 2016.

According to the suit, Inam was starting to get noticed throughout the company for his efforts to bolster the advanced analytics division, prompting another employee of color to warn him that he should “take a step back” because his visibility was becoming an “issue” for Carpenter.

In August 2017, Nike formed a new analytics team overseen by Carpenter as part of a reorganization. At the time, Inam was the only person of color reporting to Cornelius and one of two people of color working under Carpenter, according to the suit. Inam alleges that he faced a series of discriminatory incidents under both managers, who are white.

Alleged hostility and discrimination

The suit alleges that Carpenter told Inam during their first meeting, “Consider all the hurdles I have created for you gone because we are one team now.” Inam was “distressed to learn that Mr. Carpenter had previously taken steps to interfere with his success” and took the comment as a threat.

The suit alleges that Inam faced a pattern of allegedly discriminatory behavior, and subsequent inaction from Nike’s human resources department, over the following several months. The lawsuit accuses Cornelius of yelling at and humiliating Inam during various staff meetings, refusing to include him in meetings with upper-level management, reassigning his projects, “falsely and unfairly” criticizing his work performance and suggesting he leave Nike on multiple occasions.

The suit also alleges Inam was being paid significantly less than his white counterparts and states that when Inam raised the topic with Cornelius, he was told, “If you don’t think you are paid fairly then feel free to leave; there are plenty of jobs out there.” Inam was passed up for a promotion even though the person leaving the position recommended Inam to take over the role, according to the suit, which also alleges Cornelius treated other employees of color in a similarly hostile, dismissive and degrading manner.

Human resources complaints

Inam started to develop anxiety, sleeplessness, nausea, headaches, nightmares, loss of appetite and depression, according to the suit. But when he went to managers and filed HR complaints, the situation got worse, according to the lawsuit. For example, when Inam reported Cornelius to her manager, Carpenter allegedly found out and deliberately left Inam off the agenda for a scheduled offsite meeting, according to the suit, which adds that “numerous individuals made comments about his exclusion, causing Mr. Inam to feel increased humiliation with this wider audience.”

Inam filed additional complaints via the company’s “Matter of Respect” hotline, which was established when Nike was forced to respond to reports of discrimination against female employees, but HR categorized Inam’s experience with Cornelius as a “misunderstanding” and suggested he was the one at fault. During a staff meeting, Cornelius allegedly said to Inam, “It is amazing what people talk behind your back,” in reference to his complaints to HR, according to the lawsuit.

Inam was subsequently placed on a performance action plan, meaning he “would have to meet certain goals within 90 days or face further discipline, including possible termination,” according to the suit. But Cornelius allegedly failed to attend several meetings about the action plan, according to the lawsuit.

Inam continued to report Cornelius’ behavior to HR, and eventually, she stripped him of his chief product owner title, the suit states. Inam finally had an emotional breakdown at work, according to the lawsuit, after a meeting with Cornelius at which she was “particularly abusive to him.” The suit goes on to state that this triggered an investigation during which Inam was told to “take two weeks of administrative leave to address his mental health condition.” When he returned to work in July 2018, the suit alleges that Cornelius transitioned most of his work to other teams.

Days before Inam started a previously scheduled paternity leave—during which the suit says he was diagnosed with extreme anxiety and depression with features of PTSD—Cornelius allegedly rated Inam’s performance as “inconsistent,” which resulted in his only receiving a 1 percent raise and set him on a “path to termination,” according to the lawsuit.

In October, when Inam was supposed to return from paternity leave, Nike learned Inam had hired an attorney, according to the lawsuit. The suit states that Inam was forced to remain on leave during an internal investigation until he resigned in December.

Cornelius said he believes that after he resigned, he was subjected to greater scrutiny than white employees who had previously left Nike. The company allegedly scoured Inam’s computers for “evidence of impropriety” and demanded he return all work-related documents, which other employees had not been forced to do, according to the lawsuit.

Inam is seeking $516,000 in financial damages including lost wages, stock options and benefits, and $350,000 in noneconomic damages, including harm to his professional reputation and emotional distress.

Portland law firm Buchanan Angeli Altschul & Sullivan is representing Inam. His attorneys were not available for comment.

@kitten_mouse Lindsay Rittenhouse is a staff writer at Adweek, where she specializes in covering the world of agencies and their clients.
Publish date: March 25, 2019 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT