California v Activision: Employee Walkout and CEO Breaks Silence
Activision Blizzard sat on a wall. Activision Blizzard had a great fall. All the PR firms and company men, Couldn’t put Activision-Blizzard back together again.
This summarises the story of what happened to Activision Blizzard over the past week. After years of bad business decisions, ignoring a toxic workplace environment and more, the bill has come due. On July 20th, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued the publisher behind Call of Duty and Overwatch. The lawsuit alleges gender-based workplace discrimination, blatant sexual harassment and a work environment akin to a fraternity house. This is the culmination of a two-year investigation that unearthed violations of civil rights and equal pay laws.
Civil Rights Violations
According to the suit, Activision Blizzard’s ‘‘frat boy’’ workplace culture indulged in highly inappropriate behaviour by male employees. This includes coming to work hungover, joking about violating women and engaging in “cube crawls”, where drunk male employees would enter the cubicles of their female co-workers to grope them.
Furthermore, new mothers received negative evaluations while on maternity leave. They would even be expelled from breastfeeding rooms so that other employees could use the room for meetings. In a shameful display, a female employee even committed suicide after accompanying a male supervisor on a business trip where he had brought butt plugs and lubricant along during the trip.
Unequal Pay and sexism
As for pay, women at Activision Blizzard chronically earn less than their male counterparts. According to an anonymous developer, “Women are generally brought in at a lower rate of pay than their male counterparts with the same experience levels[…] Often this is because the men that join Blizzard have friends on the inside pulling [for] them. It also happens because women coming in are usually paid less at their previous job and will accept lower offers without knowing the pay band they are being brought in on.”
Lastly, while management enabled all of the above, female enforcers in positions of power upheld the status quo as well. It made it difficult for women to raise complaints through the appropriate channels when HR could be complicit with the misconduct.
Activision-Blizzard’s public relations nightmare
Activision Blizzard responded to the lawsuit by lashing out against the Dept Fair Employment & Housing (DFEH). The company even threw a not-so-subtle political jab, referring to ‘‘irresponsible behaviour from unaccountable State bureaucrats that are driving many of the State’s best businesses out of California.”
Overall, the response insists that the investigation was conducted in bad faith and that allegations in the lawsuit were exaggerated. Moreover, the statement adds that any culture of harassment is a relic of the past and that today’s Activision Blizzard was a place of inclusion, diversity and equity.
Since then, multiple high profile former employees, including Chris Meitzen and Mike Morhaime, corroborated the allegations and apologised. As a result, the messaging campaign on the company’s side has been a nightmare with the most recent Fran email leak. In this email thread to employees, Frances F. Townsend, Activision-Blizzard’s chief compliance officer, called the suit ‘‘meritless.’’ In the end, the defiant and tone-deaf response from Activision-Blizzard only added fuel to the fire.
Employee walk out and CEO Bobby Kotick responds
After a week, this saga culminates in the walkout organised by Activision-Blizzard employees for July 28th. In addition, over 2600 employees signed a letter expressing dissatisfaction with their employer’s response and making several demands.
Following this development, the ATVI stock listed on the NASDAQ took a nosedive, reaching its lowest price in over 6 months. Ultimately, Activision-Blizzard CEO, Bobby Kotick, had no choice but to do damage control. He took a more measured stance, acknowledging in his public statement that the company’s initial response was tone deaf and listing several improvements he would make in the near future.
It was a chaotic week for everyone in the gaming world. It’s baffling that behavior, akin to male harasser stereotypes in the Mary Tyler Moore Show, can be commonplace within any company in the age of #MeToo. Despite itself, Activision-Blizzard somehow managed to reach a new low.
What you can (or should) do
If you want to stand in solidarity with the walkout, you can join the employees outside of the Blizzard main campus in Irvine at 10AM PST. It’s alright if you are unable to join in-person because you can tweet with #ActiBlizzardWalkout to express your support. If you are a content creator, don’t play Call of Duty or World of Warcraft. Finally, your dollars speak louder than your words where business is concerned. You should immediately divest in Activision Blizzard and encourage your fellow investors to do so. According to Berkshire Hathaway, additional litigation could be on the cards for misleading investors. Regardless, it looks like the chickens have come home to roost for this industry titan.