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California sues Activision Blizzard over a culture of ‘constant sexual harassment’

California sues Activision Blizzard over a culture of ‘constant sexual harassment’

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Employees are already coming forward to corroborate

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Photo: Blizzard

California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) says that renowned game publishing studio Blizzard Entertainment, and its owner Activision Blizzard, have created a culture of “constant sexual harassment” and gender-based discrimination, in a new lawsuit filed Tuesday that claims top executives were aware and/or involved. And in the hours since the suit was revealed, numerous women have already stepped forward to corroborate the allegations.

The details are so disturbing that we’re going to start with a trigger warning right now. The idea that male employees held “cube crawls” is one of the tamer allegations in the lawsuit:

Female employees almost universally confirmed that working for Defendants was akin to working in a frat house, which invariably involved male employees drinking and subjecting female employees to sexual harassment with no repercussion. “Cube crawls” in Defendants’ offices were common and male employees proudly came into work hungover. Similarly, male employees would play video games during work, engage in banter about their sexual encounters, talk openly about female bodies, and make numerous jokes about rape.

As a product of this “frat boy” culture, women were subjected to numerous sexual comments and advances, groping and unwanted physical touching, and other forms of harassment. A female employee noted that random male employees would approach her on Defendants’ work site and comment on her breasts. Female employees working for the World of Warcraft team noted that male employees and supervisors would hit on them, make derogatory comments about rape, and otherwise engage in demeaning behavior. This behavior was known to supervisors and indeed encouraged by them, including a male supervisor openly encouraging a male subordinate to “buy” a prostitute to cure his bad mood.

Blizzard president J. Allen Brack is specifically named as being aware of and enabling this sort of behavior, and an unnamed former Blizzard CTO “was observed by employees groping inebriated female employees at company events.” World of Warcraft senior creative director Alex Afrasiabi is also specifically named:

Alex Afrasiabi, the former Senior Creative Director of World of Warcraft at Blizzard Entertainment, was permitted to engage in blatant sexual harassment with little to no repercussions. During a company event (an annual convention called Blizz Con) Afrasiabi would hit on female employees, telling him he wanted to marry them, attempting to kiss them, and putting, his arms around them. This was in plain view of other male employees, including supervisors, who had to intervene and pull him off female employees. Afrasiabi was so known to engage in harassment of females that his suite was nicknamed the “Crosby Suite” after alleged rapist Bill Crosby.

We’re assuming the DFEH meant Bill Cosby, but it’s not clear. A few even uglier things are described in the full complaint below, like how one employee committed suicide after extreme forms of sexual harassment.

All of the alleged sexual harassment is on top of allegations of discrimination, such as refusals to promote women — “the manager commented that they could not risk promoting her as she might get pregnant and like being a mom,” one allegation reads — as well as pay discrimination and outright retaliation. Employees were allegedly “discouraged from complaining as human resource personnel were known to be close to alleged harassers.”

Here is the full statement Activision Blizzard provided to The Verge and other publications, which calls the lawsuit “irresponsible behavior from unaccountable State bureaucrats that are driving many of the State’s best businesses out of California”:

We value diversity and strive to foster a workplace that offers inclusivity for everyone. There is no place in our company or industry, or any industry, for sexual misconduct or harassment of any kind. We take every allegation seriously and investigate all claims. In cases related to misconduct, action was taken to address the issue. 

The DFEH includes distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard’s past. We have been extremely cooperative with the DFEH throughout their investigation, including providing them with extensive data and ample documentation, but they refused to inform us what issues they perceived. They were required by law to adequately investigate and to have good faith discussions with us to better understand and to resolve any claims or concerns before going to litigation, but they failed to do so. Instead, they rushed to file an inaccurate complaint, as we will demonstrate in court. We are sickened by the reprehensible conduct of the DFEH to drag into the complaint the tragic suicide of an employee whose passing has no bearing whatsoever on this case and with no regard for her grieving family. While we find this behavior to be disgraceful and unprofessional, it is unfortunately an example of how they have conducted themselves throughout the course of their investigation. It is this type of irresponsible behavior from unaccountable State bureaucrats that are driving many of the State’s best businesses out of California. 

The picture the DFEH paints is not the Blizzard workplace of today. Over the past several years and continuing since the initial investigation started, we’ve made significant changes to address company culture and reflect more diversity within our leadership teams. We’ve amplified internal programs and channels for employees to report violations, including the “ASK List” with a confidential integrity hotline, and introduced an Employee Relations team dedicated to investigating employee concerns. We have strengthened our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and combined our Employee Networks at a global level, to provide additional support. Employees must also undergo regular anti-harassment training and have done so for many years. 

We put tremendous effort in creating fair and rewarding compensation packages and policies that reflect our culture and business, and we strive to pay all employees fairly for equal or substantially similar work. We take a variety of proactive steps to ensure that pay is driven by non-discriminatory factors. For example, we reward and compensate employees based on their performance, and we conduct extensive anti-discrimination trainings including for those who are part of the compensation process. 

We are confident in our ability to demonstrate our practices as an equal opportunity employer that fosters a supportive, diverse, and inclusive workplace for our people, and we are committed to continuing this effort in the years to come. It is a shame that the DFEH did not want to engage with us on what they thought they were seeing in their investigation.

Since the lawsuit was revealed, at least five former Blizzard employees have come forward on social media to corroborate details like the “cube crawl,” or that they had to deal with sexual harassment, or that they saw it happen, or that they actually appeared anonymously in the suit. We’re not embedding or linking to their posts without permission, since we’re worried they might be targeted online, too.

The California DFEH was also involved with a major sexual harassment and discrimination suit against Riot Games, which initially landed at a settlement of just $10 million before the DFEH suggested it should be $400 million or more.

Ubisoft was embroiled in a huge sexual harassment scandal last year, one whose roots may go back a decade; an October survey revealed that a full quarter of all Ubisoft employees said they’d seen or experienced sexual harassment.

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