Under Armour is being accused of promoting a troubling workplace culture, after it was revealed that the sports apparel company used to allow some employees and executives to expense visits to strip clubs.
According to a report from the Wall Street Journal, the practice, following some corporate parties and sporting events, was “legacy,” until an email from UA finance chief David Bergman sent out in February 2018 notified employees that the company would no longer pay for “adult entertainment, limousine services and gambling.”
A spokesperson told the Journal that the company never condoned strip club visits, and added that company CEO Kevin Plank never used corporate money at adult entertainment destinations and did not conduct business there either. But the spokesperson did not comment on other UA executives who might have done so.
In an emailed statement to Vox, a spokesperson confirmed that UA had “addressed these serious allegations of the past and will continue to address workplace behavior that violates our policies. Inappropriate behavior that challenges our values or violates our policies is unacceptable — and will not be tolerated. We are committed to providing a respectful and inclusive workplace.”
In the report, the Journal uncovers a troubling culture at UA beyond the systemic endorsement of strip club visits, including the company’s reported cover-up of misconduct from two executives. The report also revealed examples of sexist conduct that essentially came from the top, like how young female UA employees would get invited to parties with executives “based on attractiveness, to appeal to male guests.”
The Journal is calling this “Under Armour’s #MeToo moment.” The company has previously attracted headlines for controversies, like when Plank praised President Trump for his business background, calling him a “real asset” in February 2017. But the news about UA paying for strip clubs visits comes at a time when companies like Nike and Lululemon are also contending with backlash against their male-dominated work cultures, and when women around the world are calling into question inappropriate and sexist workplace practices.
Reports of toxic masculinity at Under Armour run deep
UA is often regarded as a brand with classically American tenacity and ambition — a company that took off after the debut of a single, highly coveted T-shirt. Plank, too, is often celebrated as an “underdog billionaire.” He started the company in 1996 as a football star from the University of Maryland who wanted to create a moisture-wicking shirt that could be worn while playing sports. As noted in a New Yorker profile from 2014, the company was “created by and for football fanatics.”
What started as a small business in Plank’s grandmother’s basement is now a giant enterprise, headquartered in Baltimore and with an annual $4.9 billion in revenue. It has more than 15,000 employees worldwide, with 310 stores around the world. It also boasts a long and impressive list of athletes, including Lindsey Vonn, Tom Brady, Misty Copeland, Dwayne Johnson, and Michael Phelps, who have brand endorsement deals.
UA told the Journal that women make up almost half its workforce. A look at the company’s website reveals that its entire executive team is male, and former and current employees who’ve left reviews of the company on Glassdoor say that leadership promotes a culture of machismo. While it’s hard to verify any allegations made on Glassdoor, as they are anonymous, a common thread in many reviews is that UA is suffering from a culture of toxic masculinity. These reviews call Under Armour a “toxic, terrible place to work,” and “misogynistic, sexist,” while others wrote that “upper management disrespects women” and that “executives respond to/ promote those with alpha behavior and boastful personalities.”
Under Armour’s campaign with professional ballet dancer Misty Copeland in 2017.Under Armour/Facebook
“It’s basically every single toxic workplace stereotype you could ever hope for,” one Glassdoor review from an apparent former senior software engineer at the company’s Baltimore headquarters wrote in September 2018.
Another former employee, who says they worked for eight years as a senior business analyst and project manager in Baltimore, wrote that UA “was once great, lost its way.”
“Boys club, locker room mentality leads to a lot of boisterous talk,” the review reads. “UA employees do not need a huge campus with overpriced food. They need to be respected, compensated and appreciated.”
Some employees place blame on Plank, pointing out that many of the company executives are a part of his inner circle.
“Company is just beginning to learn the spelling of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusiveness,’” another Glassdoor review reads. “Many leaders are old school and stale. Huge culture of favoritism. (White) boys club mentality. There are pockets of good teams, but if you work for the wrong team or manager, it can feel like a very different company!”
Another employee wrote, “If you’re not part of the original “inner circle” at the very top – stay away. Fraternity politics at every turn.”
Under Armour says it’s working to change its culture
While UA would not comment to Vox on these Glassdoor reviews, it did share an email from Plank and COO Patrik Frisk that was sent out to all employees after the Journal story dropped. The email acknowledged that the Journal’s story was “tough to read” and noted that Plank and Frisk wanted to “own our truth.”
“We believe that there is systemic inequality in the global workplace and will embrace this opportunity to accelerate the ongoing meaningful cultural transformation that is already underway at Under Armour,” the email reads. “We can and will do better. You deserve to work in a respectful and empowering environment. Inappropriate behavior that challenges our values or violates our policies is unacceptable – and will not be tolerated. We believe that our diversity and collective decency will drive our future.”
Plank and Frisk wrote to employees that they believe “your voice is critical and we continue to listen humbly and act decisively.” They also said they “look forward to engaging you directly and honestly in the days and months ahead,” and outlined resources that the company had, like its “Teammate Engagement Survey” and “confidential channels” people could use to report inappropriate behavior.
But the executives did not specifically claim any responsibility for existing inappropriate workplace culture, nor did they outline any new changes that would help UA employees struggling with the company’s work culture, especially its female employees.
For its part, UA has taken some very public swings to get ahead of PR disasters. Following the huge story about USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar sexually abusing hundreds of athletes, UA pulled its sponsorship of USA Gymnastics last year. And in August 2017, following the aftermath of the “Unite the Right” riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, Plank resigned from the President Trump’s manufacturing council (which ended up crumbling entirely anyway).
If there’s any cohesive storyline, it’s that the #MeToo movement will continue to expose troubling workplace practices that have been swept under the rug. The tweak of an expense policy could be just the beginning for UA.