Activision Blizzard, the publishing giant behind everything from Call of Duty to Overwatch, is being sued by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing over a “frat boy” workplace culture that it alleges has led to years of harassment and abuse targeting the women in its workforce.
Content warning: suicide, harassment, rape
Bloomberg reports that the suit, filed on July 20, is the culmination of a two-year investigation into the publisher by the Department, which says that Activision Blizzard’s “compliance with California’s broad workplace protections is long overdue.”
“To enforce such compliance,” the case says, “DFEH brings this government enforcement action seeking to remedy, prevent and deter [Activision Blizzard’s] violations of state’s civil rights and equal pay laws.”
While pointing out the lack of women in leadership positions at the company, and the difficulties they have faced in gaining promotions, the suit also highlights enormous pay discrepancies at the executive level between women and men, and says women are not only promoted more slowly, they’re also terminated “more quickly than their male counterparts.”
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The company’s “frat boy” workplace culture is also mentioned, as a “breeding ground for harassment and discrimination against women.” Some of the examples provided include:
In the office, women are subjected to “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 in inappropriate behavior toward female employees. Male employees proudly come into work hungover, play video games for long periods of time during work while delegating their responsibilities to female employees, engage in banter about their sexual encounters, talk openly about female bodies and joke about rape.
Female employees are subjected to constant sexual harassment, including having to continually fend off unwanted sexual comments and advances by their male co-workers and supervisors and being groped at the “cube crawls” and other company events. High-ranking executives and creators engaged in blatant sexual harassment without repercussions.
In a particularly tragic example, a female employee committed suicide during a business trip with a male supervisor who had brought butt plugs and lubricant with him on the trip.
Also highlighted were situations where “female employees were...treated negatively due to their pregnancies,” (we reported in 2019 that Activision was seeking to monitor employee’s pregnancies).
Supervisors ignored medical restrictions given to female employees and gave them negative evaluations while they were out on maternity leave. Other female employees reported that they were criticized for leaving to pick up their children from daycare while their male counterparts were playing video games and female employees were kicked out of lactation rooms so employees could use the room for meetings.
And instances where “women of color were particularly vulnerable targets” of “discriminatory practices.”
An African American employee noted that it took her two years to be made into a permanent employee while men hired after her were made permanent employees. She also was micromanaged such that her male coworkers were known to be playing video games without any intervention by her supervisor, but her supervisor would call and check on her if she took a break to go on a walk. Another African American employee, who worked in information technology, was similarly micromanaged by her manager unlike the men on her team. When she requested time off of work, her manager made her write a one-page summary of how she would spend that time off when no one else had to do any write-up.
The suit also accuses Activision Blizzard of failing to act on “numerous complaints” concerning harassment, discrimination and retaliation from male colleagues over those complaints, and says employees affected were “further discouraged from complaining as human resource personnel were known to be close to alleged harassers.”
The DFEH has brought the suit seeking an injunction that will force Activision Blizzard to not only begin complying with state workplace laws, but also address “unpaid wages, pay adjustments, back pay, and lost wages and benefits for female employees.”
In January of this year, Activision Blizzard called attempts to make its workplace more diverse “unworkable”.
Update 7/21/2021 10 p.m. ET: Activision has responded to the DFEH’s suit with a lengthy statement that calls the DFEH and its suit, “irresponsible behavior from unaccountable State bureaucrats.”
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.
Update 7/22/2021 5:40am ET: Further examples of the alleged treatment of mothers and black employees added to the story.