Activision Blizzard, a video game developer that produces popular titles like World of Warcraft and Call of Duty, is not only a case study in how not to respond to allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace—it’s also the latest blatant showing of managerial recklessness in an industry ripe for transformational change.
For a company whose senior leadership allegedly knew of widespread sexual harassment and discrimination more than a decade ago but did nothing about it, the complaint filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) on July 20 following its two-year investigation is long overdue. Since that lawsuit was filed, former Activision Blizzard employees have come forward with their own experiences of abuse and harassment at the company.
You know the allegations are bad when they require a content warning, and this complaint is replete with them, describing a “frat boy culture” that subjected female employees to everything from “constant sexual harassment” to “unwanted physical touching” to jokes about rape. In one particularly horrific example, a female employee committed suicide on a work trip allegedly because of the harassment.
Frances Townsend fails to demonstrate the leadership skills necessary of any effective chief compliance officer—like, say, good communication skills and the ability to address highly sensitive issues with compassion and tact.
The lawsuit further describes sex discrimination related to compensation, job assignment, promotions, and retaliation. Although “numerous complaints” were made to human resources and other senior executives, they “failed to take effective remedial measures,” the complaint states.
To make matters worse, Activision Blizzard Chief Compliance Officer Frances Townsend, in an email to employees, responded not in defense of the victims but rather in a curiously defensive way coming from somebody who joined the company just four months prior to the lawsuit being filed. Specifically, Townsend said the lawsuit painted “a distorted and untrue picture … including factually incorrect, old, and out of context stories—some from more than a decade ago.”
Her email goes on to describe the many ways Activision Blizzard “takes a hardline approach to inappropriate and hostile work environments,” concluding that, “We cannot let egregious actions of others, and a truly meritless and irresponsible lawsuit, damage our culture of respect.”
(To be clear, if the egregious actions of others are systemic, there is no culture of respect. Period.)
As the former Homeland Security Advisor to President George W. Bush, Townsend is no stranger to controversy. But all that’s relevant here is she fails to demonstrate the leadership skills necessary of any effective chief compliance officer—like, say, good communication skills and the ability to address highly sensitive issues with compassion and tact. Since the email to staff, Townsend has reportedly been blocking employees on Twitter who criticized her for sharing a tweet on July 30 about the “problem with whistleblowing.”
In a joint letter addressed to Activision Blizzard’s leadership team, more than 1,000 current and former employees expressed their outrage, calling Townsend’s response “abhorrent and insulting” and one that “creates a company atmosphere that disbelieves victims. It also casts doubt on our organizations’ ability to hold abusers accountable for their actions and foster a safe environment for victims to come forward in the future.”
While CEO Bobby Kotick apologized in a follow-up letter, calling the company’s initial response “tone deaf” and announcing an investigation into its workplace culture, fed-up Activision Blizzard employees are demanding action. A staged walkout on July 28 was attended by more than 500 employees. Among the improvements they seek include an end to forced arbitration for employees, employee participation in oversight of hiring and promotion policies, greater pay transparency, and employee selection of a third party to audit HR.
Change began to take form Tuesday, as J. Allen Brack stepped down from his role as president of Blizzard Entertainment. Brack was accused of ignoring claims of sexual harassment as part of the lawsuit. A video that has resurfaced from 2010 in which he and other Blizzard panelists at a convention respond rudely to a question from a female audience member about the image of female characters in World of Warcraft (4:25 mark) also did him no favors.
Outside Activision Blizzard, Pandora’s box has been opened. In a separate open letter addressed to Activision Blizzard employees, more than 500 current and former workers at video game company Ubisoft declared their “solidarity” with the cause and equally called for “real, fundamental changes, within Ubisoft, within Activision Blizzard, and across the industry.”
Ubisoft similarly faces lawsuits following more than 100 reports of sexual harassment and misconduct, including allegations of rape. While the allegations resulted in Ubisoft’s director of HR and other executives stepping down last year, many of the accused reportedly still have their jobs.
In addition to Activision Blizzard, the California DFEH has filed a similar action against Riot Games, which is proceeding in court now concerning allegations of gender discrimination and sexual harassment. A separate lawsuit filed against Riot Games in 2018 for similar claims is pending in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Only time will tell what, if any, lasting transformational changes will result from all of this, but one thing is certain: The day of reckoning for the video game developer industry is finally here.