The Ongoing Saga of Workplace Harassment at Activision-Blizzard Gets Worse

Today, the Wall Street Journal dropped a fairly large investigative piece that details a myriad of the issues with harassment and minority mistreatment that has been the saga of the back-half of the year for Activision-Blizzard. The article is behind the paywall at WSJ, which totally means you should buy a subscription and not click this totally-meaningless blue text to read it.

The article focuses in largely on Activision, which is probably a sigh of relief for all the Blizzard-specific revelations that we’ve had as the lawsuit from the CA DFEH kicked off, but one tidbit does center on Blizzard’s recent departure of Jen Oneal, answering quite clearly the context we all knew was missing.

In summary, the article largely focuses at the level of CEO Bobby Kotick (I can’t believe I share a first name with this chucklefuck, it hurts), and centers on one of the constant, pivotal questions in cases like this one – who knew what when?

The article is pretty damning, as it brings to light a large handful of cases where Kotick was aware and prevented appropriate punitive actions against harassers, moved to settle quickly without the Board of Directors involved, how even the moves the company has made post-lawsuit to “improve” things have been hollow and tokenizing, and how Kotick himself has gotten in on the harassment, including covering sexual harassment of some staff members of his private plane and leaving voicemails threatening to have an assistant of his killed – many claims which he denies or claims regret over.

So let’s tackle the big revelations in their article order:

-Activision-owned Sledgehammer Games was one of many studios with reported problems, including an employee who was raped in 2016 and 2017 after being pressured to drink excessively in the office and at work events, with her male supervisor being the perpetrator. This was reported to HR, ignored, and the employee sued, leading to a quick out-of-court settlement which Kotick approved without informing the company board of either the rapes themselves or the settlement.

-The now-infamous Frances “Torture-Supporter” Townsend email about how things were not that bad was in fact drafted by Kotick, who then instructed Townsend to send it. When the backlash hit, Kotick then swept in publicly to disown the comments (which he wrote) and to provide the softer response.

-When the initial lawsuit came out, blindsiding the company’s board, Kotick informed them that “any” cultural issues were centered on Blizzard specifically, and then said he had resolved those issues “years earlier.”

-Over 500 reports of harassment, sexual assault, bullying, pay disparities, and more have been reported since the lawsuit, which Activision is investigating using teams “inside and outside” the company.

-Jen Oneal, who was promoted from head of Vicarious Visions to co-lead Blizzard alongside Mike Ybarra, had herself been sexually harassed at Activision previously, recounting a studio event in 2007 she attended with Kotick where the studio had dancers on stripper poles and a DJ encouraging women to drink more “so the men would have a better time.” She indicated in an internal email that her resignation was prompted by her co-leadership at Blizzard, as she was propped up as a token employee, being Asian-American, gay, and a woman, and the kicker, in a move designed to show dedication to improving workplace equality by putting up a female leader, she was paid less for the co-lead role than Ybarra was, despite being equal roles and Oneal actually being the longer-term Activision employee.

-Activision changed reporting structure in 2019 to have HR for studios report directly to the corporate office, and blames the lack of oversight and meaningful action on the separate HR functions at each studio not having that reporting relationship.

-Kotick “approves high-profile hiring decisions and the exit and pay packages of star developers” and “is typically aware of any major problems in each of Activision’s 12 development studios,” but “generally isn’t involved in the hiring, compensation or termination decisions for most employees.”

-Dan Bunting, co-head of Treyarch, one of the Call of Duty studios, was accused of sexual harassment in 2017, with Activision HR investigating in 2019 and recommending his termination. Kotick personally intervened to keep him, instead giving him counseling and keeping him on. The text at the end of this seems to imply that Bunting only left Activision after the WSJ asked about the allegations against him, which is…a lot!

-In the previously recounted Sledgehammer games rape story, Activision claimed that after the email from the victim’s attorney, the company responded with an investigation and terminated the supervisor two months later. The company claimed that the issue had not been reported to HR, which was false. A second employee at Sledgehammer, Eduard Roehrich, had also been accused of sexual harassment, including at a company party. This happened in 2017 and he was given a two-week paid leave and allowed to remain with Activision in a different role. He was told to “keep this matter confidential” in an email provided to the WSJ, and was then let go in 2018 after an argument with his manager about his green card (Roehrich is a German citizen). The company disputes the claim that the green card argument was involved with his termination.

-Activision is banning alcohol at company events.

-The lawsuit and investigation were not disclosed to investors until after the news went public this summer.

-Kotick himself has been accused of mistreatment a lot, with a 2006 incident with an assistant where he left a voicemail threatening to have her killed (he settled and expressed “regret” for his “tone”), a 2007 incident with a flight attendant on a private jet he co-owned where the pilot sexually harassed her and then Kotick threated to “destroy” her, which Kotick denies. In 2020, a group of female eSports employees wrote to their leaders describing inappropriate touching, demeaning comments, and exclusion from meetings, which Kotick was aware of. The eSports team was later provided with diversity and inclusion training.

-Blizzard technology chief Ben Kilgore was fired in 2018 due to multiple allegations of harassment, a move approved by Kotick. However, Mike Morhaime sent an email thanking him for his many contributions as Kilgore left the company, which was rather off-putting given the nature of his departure and that employees has been told to not discuss the circumstances of his departure.

So, summary down, there is a lot to chew on here.

Firstly, to center the employees once again, they’ve started a virtual walkout today and asked for player participation, and I would encourage you to support their request or at least consider it.

To the details of the actual article, however…yikes.

The thing about a lot of this news is that it isn’t necessarily surprising. Bobby Kotick has been a known scumbag for a long, long time, from all his various statements over the years to media outlets to stories like these ones, whispered in hushed tones before going public, to tidbits that paint a pretty awful picture of him as a human being, like the fact that he is one of the names in Jeffrey Epstein’s black book. No one is under any delusions about who Bobby Kotick is (save perhaps for Kotick himself), and these disclosures in all their awful detail don’t really surprise or shock.

However, what they paint is a clear picture of a company that has created a festering cesspool of toxic behavior that has pushed out countless women and minorities and made them feel unsafe and unwelcome. This cultural rot is, as was suspected, a top-down phenomenon. The kind of person who finds making death threats to employees acceptable, who himself is a sexual harasser with a documented history of these kinds of things, would of course create and foster an environment where these things are tolerated and misdirected around. Of course, he alone is not solely responsible, and there is obvious evidence of things like Blizzard’s own involvement in this story which shows that the rot was present and growing at multiple levels of the company hierarchy, but you can see in this story in particular the ways in which a harasser in charge leads to more problems.

Because that is ultimately the issue. If you are a sexual harasser, you will try to find the excuses for others that you feel apply for you as well. You’ll mumble about intentions or about how it was invited, and you’ll be overly willing to accept any mealy-mouth half-apology because that is what you would want for yourself.

What is disheartening about this story is that on both fronts where justice could be had, there are reasons to believe none will be served. The US in general is very bad about enacting justice on corporate entities, who often get away with murder (sometimes literally!) and get nothing more than a slap on the wrist in fines and penalties that are usually less than a single-digit percentage of a company’s quarterly revenue and they have to make some public show of contrition with an apology, mandatory trainings to curb behavior, and some requirements around signage or external reporting for harassment and other such crimes. In this case, that might not even happen, as the legal sniping between the federal EEOC office and the California DFEH threatens to upend the whole case or lead to the punishment being the tiny $18 million settlement that ATVI moved to make with the EEOC.

On the ATVI front, Kotick should absolutely be ousted as CEO, but that may prove difficult as well. In the hours since the WSJ story went live, the Board of Directors at ATVI released a statement in support of Kotick, while he individually owns the largest number of shares in ATVI for an individual investor according to Investopedia (about 0.56% of outstanding shares, as the majority of ATVI’s investors are institutional investors). Theoretically, an effort to oust him could gain shareholder support, particularly from anxious institutional investors, but with the support of the Board of Directors behind him, such an effort might prove difficult or impossible.

At an individual level for anyone like myself, this information is challenging to any support of games like WoW you might want to have, although people I know who stopped playing Blizzard titles but still support Call of Duty may now have to grapple with that decision all the same. Ultimately, I land on this where I did before – I support the actions of the employees in their walkout and join them virtually by not playing any ATVI titles until they end their walkout, but I also understand that media decisions are more complex and nuanced than any one issue can paint them to be and thus I don’t have any ill-will towards those who are choosing to play ATVI games in the interim, or to those that have chosen a complete boycott. As long as you aren’t hassling anyone else over their personal choices, do what you will with your own choice in the matter.

The worst part of these stories is that the sense I have is a sinking feeling that no justice will be done. ATVI is unlikely to feel much of a pinch, Kotick is unlikely to be booted as I believe he should be, and the legal proceedings seem to be a shitshow onto themselves, one which feels increasingly like it is going to end with the two agencies investigating slamming each other and ending up doing nothing to actually aid the employees affected. Each awful detail, each ignored report, each case with details worse than the last, only adds to the cumulative disgust of how likely it is that no one who victimized or enabled that horror will serve any meaningful justice. Sure, some supervisors are finding it harder to get work, but they still have jobs in many cases and they’ll never pay criminally, while enablers like Black Book Bobby Kotick himself will skate by unharmed or get served with sweet golden parachutes, never asked to reconcile the horrific things that happened on their watch.

And that sucks.

5 thoughts on “The Ongoing Saga of Workplace Harassment at Activision-Blizzard Gets Worse

  1. I always saw Kotick as a corporate movie villain, and everything he and the company did in this year… Let’s say the company and himself behave as if by villain role written for them in a movie script. As much as I hope that Blizzard as a company, the normal employees would overcome the whole thing and at least stay afloat (no one’s talking about swimming already), things like that shatter these hopes.

    Say, is there any news or general US law practice when the court hearings should actually happen? It’s been half a year since lawsuit was filed, some sort of resolution would be welcome.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I saw a link yesterday to a reddit thread where people were discussing a streamer’s assertion (I think it was Asmongold but I didn’t bookmark it so I’m not sure) that Blizzard’s real problem right now is that, due to the ongoing train-wreck of the last couple of years, they no longer have sufficient expertise within the company to develop their ongoing projects like Overwatch2, nor yet even to maintain a content flow to the existing games. The’ve lost so many people who knew how to do stuff that everything’s at best on hold and more likely going backwards and due to the incredibly bad publicity they can’t recruit enough skilled people to replace the talent they’ve lost. As someone on the thread commented, people used to want to be able to put “worked at Blizzard” on their resumes enough that they’d put up with all kinds of stuff to get it but now it’s literally the opposite; having “worked at Blizzard” on your resume is going to get you facing awkward questions at interviews, if you even get called up for interview in the first place.

    It seemed to have the ring of truth to me. We worry about how the untainted employees at ActiBlizz are going along but that raises two questions; 1) Why would you still be working there now? and 2) If you do have a good reason to stay, how long do you think it will be before you have a better reason to leave? If I was a career-minded thirty-something I think I might be looking at other options right now because to have to do so in a year or two, when who knows more revelations may have surfaced and the perceived authority of the company has plummeted.

    Maybe it won’t take an external lawsuit to finish the company as a major force. Perhaps it will become one of those once-invincible household names about which people say “Oh, I remember them. Whatever happened to them?” It’s certainly happened to many, many market leaders in my lifetime and when it happens it happens very fast.

    Like

  3. Maybe it’s time to speak out in business speak to the board.

    If nothing will ever be done because Kotick will skate on by, bringing up “all the profits that were lost” because A-B couldn’t treat people decently or properly handle their internal house will have an impact. The board speaks in terms of money and profits –as do the talking heads at places like CNBC– so why not bring up the “lost profits” angle?

    Liked by 1 person

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