Activision Blizzard, the company known for making video games like World of Warcraft and Call of Duty, is being sued by the state of California over allegations of workplace sexual harassment and discrimination.
After a two-year investigation into practices at the company, the Californian government’s Department for Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) has filed a civil action suit against the gaming giant for violating the state’s Equal Pay Act, as well as Fair Employment and Housing Act.
This is based on allegations that it “fostered a sexist culture and paid women less than men despite women doing substantially similar work, assigned women to lower level jobs and promoted them at slower rates than men, and fired or forced women to quit at higher frequencies than men”.
The department has also alleged that “African American women and other women of color were particularly impacted by Activision Blizzard’s discriminatory practices” and “women were subjected to constant sexual harassment, including groping, comments, and advances.”
In addition, the suit claims that “the company’s executives and human resources personnel knew of the harassment and failed to take reasonable steps to prevent the unlawful conduct, and instead retaliated against women who complained.”
According to Bloomberg Law, court filings referred to Activision Blizzard’s as allegedly having a “pervasive ‘frat boy’ workplace culture”, which includes so-called “cube crawls” where male employees drank “copious amounts of alcohol as they crawl their way through various cubicles in the office and often engage in inappropriate behavior toward female employees.”
There are also allegations that male employees would banter about sexual encounters, openly objectify women and their appearance, as well as joke about rape.
It also noted that one female employee took her own life while on a company trip with a male supervisor, after being subjected to repeated sexual harassment at work prior to her death; this included having explicit photos of her passed around at a company event.
The state agency, according to the New York Times, is seeking compensation for employees for unpaid wages, as well as punitive damages for sexual harassment and discrimination.
In a statement, an Activision Blizzard spokesperson told UNLEASH that “the picture 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 chances to address company culture and reflect more diversity without our leadership teams.”
This includes a new code of conduct, as well as anti-harassment training, a confidential integrity hotline, and employee networks to support on diversity, equity and inclusive commitments.
“There is no place in our company or industry, or any industry, for sexual misconduct or harassment of any kind,” the spokesperson added. “In cases related to misconduct, action was taken to address the issue.”
The spokesperson then counter-attacked against the state agency saying: “It is this type of irresponsible behavior from unaccountable state bureaucrats that are driving many of the state’s best businesses out of California.”
It also noted that Activision Blizzard was “sickened” by the DFEH’s behavior in citing “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”.
The spokesperson continued to say that the DFEH was required by law 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.”
The DFEH, in its filing, said it had attempted to resolve things before filing the legal action.
It “required all parties to participate in a mandatory dispute resolution” – but both sides had been “unable to resolve” the problems.
This is not the first time that a gaming giant has faced allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination. Many gaming organizations have a minority female workplace; Activision Blizzard has a 20% female workforce.
For example, in February, Riot Games, which makes League of Legends and owned by Chinese firm Tencent, and its CEO Nicolo Laurent were sued by Lauren’s former executive assistant, Sharon O’Donnell. The company announced an internal investigation into the incident and other issues around its alleged toxic workplace culture.
It seems that workplace harassment is generally on the rise, rather than in decline, despite the pandemic and working from home. Many abusers are taking advantage of online platforms to target individuals in a more subtle, but no less unacceptable, way that has less oversight. Research by charity Rights of Women found that 15% of women who have experienced sexual harassment at work reported an increase in online harassment whilst working from home during Covid-19.
As legislation and regulators get more hot on tackling discrimination at work head on, it is likely we will see more lawsuits between employers and employees, unions and governments, like in this case, around the issue of sexual harassment and sexist cultures.