Game Over for Activision Blizzard’s Toxic Culture

The evidence is clear that the #MeToo movement has much work left to do. Although as we write this blog entry the headlines are filled with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s sexual harassment woes, with this post we focus on the video gaming firm Activision Blizzard, Inc. (ABI) (a group of companies responsible for “Call of Duty,” “Candy Crush,” “World of Warcraft,” etc.) and the recent lawsuit filed by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing. California’s 29-page complaint ( https://aboutblaw.com/YJw ) richly documents two forms of unethical sexual discrimination.

The complaint begins with sadly familiar claims of sex discrimination in hiring, firing, compensation and other aspects of the employment relationship that are all too common in industry, especially in the tech field. The State alleges that only 20% of ABI’s workforce is women, that its top leadership is now and always has been white and male, that women who do reach higher roles are paid less than men in comparable roles, and on and on.

More terrifying are the sexual harassment allegation, which read, in part:

  1. Defendants have also fostered a pervasive “frat boy” workplace culture that continues to thrive. 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.
  2. Unsurprisingly, Defendants’ “frat boy” culture is a breeding ground for harassment and discrimination against women. 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. [Male colleagues had shared a photo of the woman’s genitals before her suicide.] Defendants continuously condone the quid pro quo and hostile work environment. The message is not lost on their employees.
  3. Numerous complaints about unlawful harassment, discrimination, and retaliation were made to Defendants’ human resources personnel and executives, including to Blizzard Entertainment’s President J. Allen Brack. But, Defendants failed to take effective remedial measures in response to these complaints. Employees were further discouraged from complaining as human resource personnel were known to be close to alleged harassers. An internal investigation into the human resource unit noted that there was a “big lack of trust” and that “HR not held in high regard.” Unsurprisingly, employees’ complaints were treated in a perfunctory and dismissive manner and not kept confidential. As a result of these complaints, female employees were subjected to retaliation, including but not limited to being deprived of work on projects, unwillingly transferred to different units, and selected for layoffs.

These allegations spell out exactly what folks interested in behavioral ethics would expect to see. Culture is all-important in organizations. Because of the conformity bias we tend to take our cues as to how to act from those around us. A “frat boy” or “bro” culture is a recipe for disaster, especially when 80% of the employees are male.

Because of the obedience to authority phenomenon, the actions of leaders have an out-sized impact on the actions of regular workers. Our videos on ethical leadership point out that most adults do not have an adequate moral compass and look to their leaders for guidance. Unfortunately, at Activision Blizzard the leaders were very much involved in the harassment. A senior executive was so blatant in hitting on female employees at an annual convention that his suite was nicknamed the “Cosby suite.” Yet complaints led to nothing more than a slap on the wrist. Other top executives made hiring decisions based on female candidates’ looks, groped inebriated female employees at company events, and asked female subordinates out on dates.

The company’s initial response to the lawsuit was that its claims were “inaccurate” and “distorted.” The top brass, due to the self-serving bias, may have thought this was true. However, more than 3,000 current and former employees signed a petition taking exception to that characterization. This push-back led to the resignation of J. Allen Brack (mentioned above), and Senior Vice President of Global HR, Jesse Meschuk.

All the brass at Activision Blizzard should have watched our Me Too video a long time ago.

 

 

Sources

Associated Press & Ronny Reyes, “Top Boss at Activision Blizzard-Makers of Call of Duty and World of Warcraft-Steps Down over ‘Frat Boy-Style Sexual Harassment’ Lawsuit in which Staff Named Hotel Room ‘Cosby Suite,’ Daily Mail.com, Aug 3, 2021, at https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9856733/Hit-metoo-revolt-head-Activision-Entertainment-out.html.

Kellen Browning & Mike Isaac, “Activision, Facing Internal Turmoil, Grapples with #MeToo Reckoning,” New York Times, July 29, 2021, at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/29/technology/activision-walkout-metoo-call-of-duty.html

California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, Complaint in Case # 21STCV26571 (filed July 20, 2021), at  https://aboutblaw.com/YJw.

Rishi Iyengar, “The Activision Blizzard Lawsuit Could Be a Watershed Moment for the Business World. Here’s Why,” CNN Business, Aug. 3, 2021, at https://www.cnn.com/2021/08/03/tech/activision-blizzard-employee-backlash-kotick/index.html.

Paul Tassi, “What Activision Blizzard Is Losing, Besdies the PR War,” Forbes, Aug. 1, 2021, at https://www.forbes.com/sites/paultassi/2021/08/01/what-activision-blizzard-is-losing-besides-the-pr-war/?sh=592197d67a62

Anna Verasai, “Activision Blizzard HR Head Resigns Amid Growing Scandal,” HR Digest, Aug. 4, 2021, at https://www.thehrdigest.com/activision-blizzard-hr-head-resigns-amid-growing-scandal/

 

Videos

Conformity Bias:  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/conformity-bias

Ethical Leadership, Part 1: Perilous at the Top: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/ethical-leadership-part-1-perilous-top

Ethical Leadership, Part 2: Best Practices: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/ethical-leadership-part-2-best-practices

Me Too: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/me-too

Obedience to Authority: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/obedience-to-authority

Self-serving Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/self-serving-bias

 

Image credit: Dinosaur918, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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