Activision Blizzard accused by California watchdog of fostering 'frat boy' culture, fatally toxic atmosphere

Games giant pushes back on claims of poor pay, harassment, and more in discrimination lawsuit


California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing on Thursday sued Activision Blizzard and its subsidiaries, alleging the company fostered a "frat boy" culture that led to lower pay for female employees, sex and race discrimination, and sexual harassment.

According to the lawsuit, as an example of the effects of this toxic culture, a female worker killed herself on a company trip due to a sexual relationship she had with her male boss.

“All employers should ensure that their employees are being paid equally and take all steps to prevent discrimination, harassment, and retaliation,” said dept director Kevin Kish in a statement [PDF]. “This is especially important for employers in male-dominated industries, such as technology and gaming.”

Activision Blizzard, the gaming behemoth forged in 2008 and based in Santa Monica, California, makes popular computer games such as Diablo, Call of Duty, and World of Warcraft, and runs online gaming service Battle.net.

Accusations of sexism, sexual harassment, and pay inequality have dogged the gaming industry for decades, as demonstrated recently by "gamergate" in 2014 and 2015 and harassment claims at UbiSoft in 2020. But as the "#MeToo" movement has shown, workplace hostility toward women extends far beyond electronic entertainment.

An Activision Blizzard spokesperson told The Register in an emailed statement the gaming biz takes these issues seriously and the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) allegations don't reflect its current workplace.

We note that one Blizzard executive identified in the complaint, "so known to engage in harassment of females that his suite was nicknamed the 'Crosby Suite' after alleged rapist Bill Crosby," appears to have quietly left the company around June 2020. A DFEH spokesperson tentatively confirmed that this is a misspelling of "Cosby," which turns out to be a more common manhandling of the briefly incarcerated comedian's surname than it should be.

Typos aside, the point is that the workplace described in the complaint was not that long ago. Incidentally, Cosby earlier this month had his 2018 sexual assault conviction vacated by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, a decision based on procedural violations rather than any determination of guilt or innocence.

Long-term toxicity case

The complaint against Activision Blizzard, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court after a DFEH investigation of more than two years that failed to produce a negotiated resolution with the firm, follows from the agency's mandate to protect the civil rights of Californians.

The DFEH complaint [PDF] details longstanding problems at the company and its subsidiaries that have led to a failure to promote women, to include women in management, and to deal with a hostile workplace culture that sustains unlawful harassment.

The legal filing describes how the company's workforce consists of only 20 per cent women while its top leadership has remained exclusively white and male.

"Very few women ever reach top roles at the company," the complaint says. "The women who do reach higher roles earn less salary, incentive pay, and total compensation than their male peers, as evidenced in Defendants' own records."

Incidents described in the lawsuit include multiple instances of alleged unlawful sex discrimination, harassment, and racism. The consequences were fatal in one case, the complaint claims.

"In a tragic example of the harassment that Defendants allowed to fester in their offices, a female employee committed suicide while on a company trip due to a sexual relationship she had been having with her male supervisor," the complaint says. "The male supervisor was found by police to have a butt plug and lubricant on his business trip.

"Another employee confirmed that the deceased female employee may have been suffering from other sexual harassment at work prior to her death. Specifically, at a holiday party before her death, male co-workers were alleged to be passing around a picture of the deceased's vagina."

According to the complaint, "female employees almost universally confirmed that working for [Activision Blizzard] was akin to working in a frat house…" It describes at environment in which male employees regularly subjected underpaid female co-workers to unwanted sexual advances, jokes about rape, and otherwise demeaning behavior.

The filing details discriminatory treatment of pregnant employees and of women of color. It also recounts how the company's HR department allegedly ignored complaints from women and failed to keep their complaints confidential. And it describes the failure of the company to address its gender pay disparity, despite having retained two separate law firms, in 2015-2017 and in 2018, to analyze compensation data.

Nothing to see here

In an email to The Register, an Activision Blizzard spokesperson offered a lengthy statement distancing the company from the alleged behavior, insisting that the company has the matter in hand, and criticizing the DFEH for citing the suicide of one of its female employees to bolster its claim.

“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.”

In correspondence with The Register, Brianna Wu, software engineer, entrepreneur, and advocate for women's rights, expressed skepticism that Activision Blizzard has adequately dealt with workplace sexism and harassment.

"The game industry keeps insisting it's changed but we keep having the same scandal like Groundhog Day," she said. "The way out is straightforward. We have a frat boy culture in the game industry. And until we address that, this is going to keep happening. But we're making a choice not to do anything.

"How do you change the culture? You promote women and other underrepresented groups. You professionalize the culture and you get rid of the overt sexists. I do not know a single woman in the game industry that feels HR is on her side."

"I've always been struck by the fact that we ship $100 million dollar fantasies of standing up to unimaginable evil," Wu added. "But when it comes to the banal evil of women being mistreated at work, the reality is there are few heroes to be found." ®

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