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

Blizzard Entertainment and its parent company Activision Blizzard have been accused of creating a culture of “constant sexual harassment” and gender-based discrimination. A new lawsuit filed Tuesday by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) alleges that top executives were aware of and/or involved in the harassment and discrimination. Several women have come forward to express their support for the lawsuit.

Due to the disturbing nature of the details, we’re going to begin by issuing a trigger warning right away. The notion that male employees participated in “cube crawls” is one of the more mild 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.

In the report, Blizzard president J. Allen Brack is specifically mentioned as being aware of and enabling this type of behaviour, and a former Blizzard CTO who has not been named has been observed groping inebriated female employees at company events by other employees. Alex Afrasiabi, the senior creative director of World of Warcraft, is also specifically mentioned:

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 going to assume the DFEH was referring to Bill Cosby, but it’s not clear. One employee committed suicide after experiencing extreme forms of sexual harassment, which is detailed in greater detail in the full complaint below.

There have also been numerous allegations of discrimination, including refusals to promote women — “the manager commented that they couldn’t risk promoting her because she might get pregnant and enjoy being a mom,” according to one allegation — as well as pay discrimination and outright retaliation against female employees. Employees were allegedly “discouraged from complaining because human resource personnel were known to be close to alleged harassers,” according to the lawsuit.

In a statement to The Verge and other publications, Activision Blizzard described the lawsuit as “irresponsible behaviour from unaccountable State bureaucrats” that is “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.

Several former Blizzard employees have come forward on social media since the lawsuit was made public, confirming details such as the “cube crawl,” or stating that they were subjected to sexual harassment, or that they witnessed it happen, or that they actually appeared anonymously in the lawsuit. We are not embedding or linking to their posts without their permission because we are concerned that they may be targeted on the internet as well.

California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing was also involved in a major sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit against Riot Games, which initially resulted in a settlement of only $10 million before the DFEH suggested that the settlement should be $400 million or more.


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