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California sues Activision Blizzard over “frat boy” office culture

The company's culture has allegedly created a "breeding ground for harassment and discrimination against women"

The orc statue outside of Blizzard's Irvine HQ

The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing has accused Activision Blizzard of fostering a “frat boy” workplace culture that sees women subjected to sexual harassment, unequal pay, and retaliation. Some of these allegations are distressing, so we’re starting with a trigger warning for the topics of suicide, harassment, and rape.

As reported by Bloomberg, the lawsuit comes after a two-year investigation that led to a complaint being filed on Tuesday in the Los Angeles Superior Court. The lawsuit alleges that the publisher has discriminated against its female employees over terms and conditions of employment such as compensation, promotion, and termination. Women are allegedly promoted more slowly than their counterparts and terminated “more quickly”. The lawsuit further highlights a lack of women in leadership positions and pay discrepancies at the executive level between men and women.

The lawsuit also accuses Activision Blizzard’s leadership of consistently failing to take steps to prevent discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. The company’s “frat-boy culture” is described as creating a “breeding ground for harassment and discrimination against women”, with employees reportedly being subjected to inappropriate comments, sexual advances, and unwanted physical touching and groping. The complaint paints a picture of a workplace in which men would “play video games during work, engage in banter about their sexual encounters, talk openly about female bodies, and make numerous jokes about rape”.

The lawsuit cites women on the World of Warcraft team who note that men and supervisors would allegedly hit on them, make derogatory comments, and “otherwise engage in demeaning behaviour”. The behaviour was reportedly known to supervisors and “indeed encouraged by them”, with one supervisor allegedly encouraging a subordinate to “buy a prostitute to cure his bad mood”.

One particularly harrowing example from the investigation alleges one woman took her own life on a business trip “due to a sexual relationship that she had been having with her male supervisor”. One employee mentioned in the lawsuit further alleges that the woman was subjected to sexual harassment at work before her death.

The suit says that Activision Blizzard’s “compliance with California’s broad workplace protections is long overdue”, and that “to enforce such compliance”, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing “brings this government enforcement action seeking to remedy, prevent, and deter [Activision Blizzard’s] violations of [the] state’s civil rights and equal pay laws.”

Activision Blizzard has provided a statement to The Verge that calls the lawsuit “irresponsible behaviour from unaccountable state bureaucrats that are driving many of the state’s best businesses out of California”. You can find it below in full:

“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 behaviour 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 behaviour 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.

A Diablo 2 player fighting enemies

“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.”

Following the publication of the lawsuit, numerous former employees have come forward on social media to share their experiences at the company or corroborate details in the report, such as the “cube crawl”.

We’ve reached out to Activision Blizzard, and will update this story if we hear back.

Image credit: Blizzard