In recent years, allegations of workplace harassment, discrimination, and toxic management have rocked numerous video game companies, and now massive Call of Duty and World of Warcraft publisher Activision Blizzard is being sued by California for alleged widespread sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination. Note, Activision Blizzard is not merely being sued in California – it’s being sued by the actual State of California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) after an in-depth two-year investigation. To my knowledge, this is the highest-level investigation of this type into a video game company we've even seen.
According to the DFEH’s lawsuit (warning to those sensitive to subjects such as sexual harassment and suicide -- the lawsuit and article below contain some graphic details), Activision Blizzard has fostered a “frat boy” culture in which female employees face discrimination when it comes to “compensation, assignment, promotion, [and] termination” and “constant sexual harassment.”
Women only make up around 20 percent of Activision Blizzard’s workforce, make less money than male counterparts in similar roles, and are rarely promoted to top roles in the company. The DFEH cites a number of specific instances of discrimination, including a woman being told her potential promotion would be a risk because she might become pregnant.
Various forms of sexual harassment are alleged to be pervasive, with the “frat boy” culture apparently being quite literal, as the DFEH’s suit claims male employees would come into work hungover, play video games, and banter about women in a crass manner on the company’s dime. This behavior would allegedly include “cube crawls,” in which “male employees drink copious amounts of alcohol as they ‘crawl’ their way through various cubicles in the office and often engage inappropriate behavior toward female employees.” Most shockingly, the suit alleges a female employee died by suicide on a business trip, during which she was harassed by a supervisor. This allegedly followed an incident in which male employees passed around nude photos of the woman during a company holiday party.
The World of Warcraft team is singled out in the suit, with harassment and demeaning behavior said to be endemic. Former WoW creative director Alex Afrasiabi is specifically called out for fostering a toxic environment and engaging in many instances of harassment himself. The DFEH alleges Blizzard president J. Allen Brack was well aware of Afrasiabi’s behavior, but did little to discipline him until he left Blizzard in 2020 (the details of Afrasiabi’s departure are unknown).
Activision Blizzard has released a lengthy statement in response to the DFEH suit, in which they accuse the agency of “distorted […] and false” descriptions and insist the picture painted is “is not the Blizzard workplace of today.”
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 updated our Code of Conduct to emphasize a strict non-retaliation focus, 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.
It sounds like a contentious court battle lies ahead for both the DFEH and Activision Blizzard. In the meantime, numerous former Activision Blizzard employees have taken to Twitter to share their stories of discrimination and harassment while at the company.