Warning: The following article discusses and/or mentions the topics of sexual harassment and suicide. While we refrain from going to explicit detail, the 29-page court filing we source (and link to) does not. If you are a minor and/or are sensitive/trigged by these topics, please do not read the court filing.
If you need to speak to someone about harassment and/or suicidal thoughts, the following hotlines and text lines are available:
- Games and Online Harassment Hotline (US-only, 3 p.m. – 7 p.m. PT): Text “SUPPORT” to 23368
- Crisis Text Line: 741-741
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
- List of International Suicide Hotlines and Emergency numbers
On Tuesday, July 20th, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) filed a lawsuit against Activision Blizzard for violating multiple sections of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and California Equal Pay Act. While the lawsuit was filed at Los Angeles’ Superior Court on Tuesday, news of the charges broke on Wednesday, July 21st. Paperwork filed by DFEH has been uploaded online and outlines DFEH’s more than a two-year investigation into claims about sexual harassment, discrimination, unequal pay, retaliation, and more against female employees.
The 29-page court filing includes multiple instances of harassment (sexual and not), inappropriate work behavior, discrimination over sex that include:
- Female employees, at hiring, were offered lower compensation, “less lucrative job assignments and opportunities”, and lower starting pay compared to male counterparts.
- Female employees being denied promotions.
- In one case, an employee was “repeatedly told it was not her turn and others deserved a promotion ahead of her. Ultimately, the employee was promoted after three years while her male counterpart was promoted within a year of his hire despite having started several months after her.”
- Another employee was “passed over for a promotion despite multiple factors that suggested she earned it: (1) highly rated performance reviews; (2) she generated significantly more revenue in her marketing campaigns than her male counterpart; and (3) she ran almost twice as many campaigns as her male counterpart. Despite her accomplishments, her male counterpart was invited to have monthly or weekly one-on-one meetings with the Vice President. She was not afforded these same opportunities and unsurprisingly was passed over for a promotion in favor of her male counterpart.”
- “Female employees were also not promoted because of Defendant’s [Activision Blizzard] discriminatory practices against pregnant female employees.” One manager commented, “that they could not risk promoting [a particular employee] as she might get pregnant and like being a mom too much.”
- According to an African American employee, “[w]hen she requested time off of work, her manager made her write a one-page summary of how she would spend that time off of work when no one else had to do any write-up.” She was also criticized for her body language by her supervisor during meetings “despite [her] male counterparts slouching” as well as asking for assistance (“while others could get help on similar tasks without the same criticism.”)
- Another African American employee had their supervisor “call and check on her if she took a break to go on a walk” despite her male coworkers were “known to be playing video games without any intervention[.]”
- Male employees drinking alcohol on the job as well as arriving to work hungover, passing responsibilities off to female employees. They would also “engage in banter about their sexual encounters, talk openly about female bodies, and make numerous jokes about [forced sexual encounters].”
- Lack of proper action from human resources (HR) including “complaints were not kept confidential.”
- The fallout from filing claims via HR lead to retaliation in the form of “involuntary transfers, selections for layoffs, and denial of projects and other opportunities.”
- During a company trip, an unnamed employee committed suicide due to sexual harassment from her male supervisor and other coworkers.
Out of all the instances of sexual harassment, only one individual is named. Alex Afrasiabi, former Senior Creative Director of World of Warcraft at Blizzard Entertainment who quietly left the company last year, “was permitted to engage in blatant sexual harassment with little to no repercussions.” The filing references an instance at BlizzCon where “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 [of] female employees.”
The document notes Activision Blizzard’s legal counsel – Paul Hastings LLP (2015 – 2017) and Miller Law Group (2018) – while retained during this time to “allegedly provide analysis related to compensation data, Defendants failed to take effective and reasonable steps to prevent pay discrimination as the pay disparity between male and female employees was not remedied and continued.”
Prior to the court filing and lawsuit, DFEH states they attempted to resolve the charges before going to litigation. Mediation sessions between DFEH and Activision Blizzard took place on July 1st, 2nd, and 15th of this year with DFEH noting that “the parties were unable to resolve the administrative complaints.” Due to the lack of a resolution, it was within DFEH’s legal right to file charges via a civil complaint by July 21st.
DFEH, based on their findings, is asking for this lawsuit to proceed as a trial by jury and, if won, for Activision Blizzard to pay unpaid wages, attorneys’ fees, and more.
Initial statement from Activision Blizzard via IGN
As the news of the lawsuit made the round on Wednesday, July 21st, many outlets reached out for an official comment from Activision Blizzard. IGN was able to get the following “statement” from an Activision Blizzard spokesperson:
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 updated our Code of Conduct to emphasize a strict non-retaliation focus, 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.
The “statement” deflects the charges brought by the state of California as well as ignores a number of facts stated in the lawsuit. Plus, Afrasiabi, who was named in the document, isn’t acknowledged by Activision Blizzard.
Internal e-mails from Activision Blizzard executives in response to the lawsuit
Since the court filing, an internal e-mail sent to Blizzard staff by Blizzard President J. Allen Brack has been sent to Jason Schreier, a reporter for Bloomberg. He has posted the e-mail on his Twitter account, slightly modified in order to protect sources (a phone number has been redacted and the e-mail was copy/pasted into Notepad). We’ve transcribed the e-mail below:
Hello Blizzard –
I personally have a lot of emotions coming out of yesterday, and I know you do, too. The allegations and the hurt of current and former employees are extremely troubling.
I know many of you would like to receive more clarity. While I can’t comment on the specifics of the case as it’s an open investigation, what I can say is that the behavior detailed in the allegations is completely unacceptable.
- It goes – with saying – it is completely unacceptable for anyone in the company to face discrimination or harassment.
- It goes – with saying – that everyone should feel safe working here, whether we are on campus, at BlizzCon, or working from home.
- It goes – with saying – it takes courage to come forward, and all claims brought to the company are investigated by internal and (when needed) external investigators. We take these claims very seriously. Claims can be made without fear of retaliation, and many times, I attend to them personally, along with our other leaders.
Stepping back – when I talked with Bobby about taking this job, one of the first things I mentioned was a revered saint of the Brack household – Gloria Steinem. Growing up, the value of women as equals, understanding the work that had been done for equal treatment, and the fact that there was still much to do, were common themes. This is just one of the reasons why the fight for equality is incredibly important to me. People with different backgrounds, views, and experiences are essential for Blizzard, our teams, and our player community. I disdain “bro culture,” and have spent my career fighting against it.
Iterating on our culture with the same intensity that we bring to our games is imperative, with our values acting as our north star. This is some of the most important work we do, both as professionals and human beings.
A company is more than a legal construct that exists as a piece of paper in a filing cabinet in Delaware. The people that work at the company make it what it is, through their actions and creations. Each of us plays a role in maintaining a place of safety for one other. And it is also up to each of us to continue to craft the Blizaard we want – and commit to doing our part in keeping Blizzard great but always apiring for more.
The leadership team and I will be meeting with many of you to answer questions and discuss how we can move forward. In the meantime, I want you to know that you can talk to any manager, any HR partner, any member of the legal team or to any one on the executive team (including, Hey J). If you feel more comfortable talking to someone outside of Blizzard, or perfer to be anonymous, you can contact the Way2Play Integrity Line [phone number redacted].
I feel angry, sad, and a host of other emotions, but I also feel grateful to work alongside a set of leaders and thousands of employees who join me in their commitment to continuous improvement.
Thank you Bliizard.
Note: DFEH names J. Allen Brack in the lawsuit multiple times:
- Page 5: “Numerous complaints about unlawful harassment, discrimination, and retaliation were made to Defendants’ human resources personnel and executives, including to Blizard Entertainment’s President J. Allen Brack. But, Defendants failed to take effective remedial measures in response to these complaints.”
- Page 15: [from the portion that discusses Afrasiabi’s known harassment quoted earlier] “J. Allen Brack, President of Blizzard Entertainment, allegedly had multiple conversations with Afrasiabi about his drinking and that he had been “too friendly” towards female employees at company events but gave Afrasiabi a slap on the wrist (i.e. verbal counseling) in response to these incidents. Subsequently, Afrasiabi continued to make unwanted advances towards female employees, including grabbing a female employee’s hand and inviting her to his hotel room and groping another woman.”
- Page 16: “An employee complained to Blizzard Entertainment President J. Allen Brack in early 2019 that employees were leaving due to sexual harassment and sexism. Specifically, this employee noted that women on the Battle.net team were subjected to disparaging comments, the environment was akin to working in a frat house, and that women who were not “huge gamers” or “core gamers” and not into the party scene were excluded and treated as outsiders.
- Editors note: While the term “frat house” is used multiple times throughout the filing, its intended use misses the mark and can be viewed that sexual harassment is just typical “boys being boys” behavior. This is an outdated belief and sections of the filing that mention it should have been reworded – considering the graphic details that made it into the final version of the document.
Hours later, another e-mail was shared by Schreier. This one is from Activision Blizzard executive Vice President for Corporate Affairs (as well as Corporate Secretary and Cheif Compliance Officer) Frances Townsend, who joined the company earlier this year (her LinkedIn specifies January, yet the press release was published in March). Note: Townsend is more known for her roles as a national security analyst for CBS (previously CNN) and as the Homeland Security Advisor to George W. Bush from 2004 – 2007.
We’ve transcribed her e-mail as well:
As the Executive Sponsor of the ABK Employee Women’s Network and our Chief Compliance Officer, I wanted to reach out to you. I know this has been difficult for many of us. A recently filed lawsuit presented a distorted and unture picture of our company, including factually incorrect, old, and out of context stories – some from more than a decade ago.
The Activision companies of today, the Activision companies that I know, are great companies with good values. When I joined the Executive Leadership Team, I was certain that I was joining a company where I would be valued, treated with respect, and provided opportunities equal to those afforded to the men of the company. For me, this has been true during my time. As a leader, I am committed to making sure that the experience I have is the same as the rest of the organization. We have a leadership team that is committed to these principles in every way.
I am proud to be part of a company that takes a hard-line approach to inappropriate or hostile work envionments and sexual harassment issues. Our Speak Up campaign reinforces our zero tolerance for retaliation against those who do speak up. We’ve made significant investments to foster inclusive behaviors, and to reflect greater diversity within our leadership teams including:
- Investing in and strengthening our DE&I Employee Networks; creating global networks to bring together the efforts in all of our business units and the introduction of Executive Sponsors.
- Introducing learning and development programs, including inclusive hiring training.
- Amplyifying internal programs such as the Way2Play Heroes and the recurring Speak Up campaign.
- Reinforcing channels for employees to report violations including the “ASK List.”
- Introducing an Employee Relations team dedicated to investigating employee concerns.
- Continuing to require all employees to take Equality & Diversity training including anti-harassment training (and have done so for many years).
We put tremendous effort into creating fair compensation policies that reflect our commitment to equal opportunity. We review compensation regularly and feel confident that we pay all employees fairly for equal or substantially similar work. We take proactive steps to ensure that pay and advancement are driven by merit. We reward performance, and we conduct extensive anti-discrimination trainings, including for those who are part of the compensation process.
We work at a company that truly values equality and fairness. Rest assured that leadership is committed to continuing to maintain a safe, fair, and inclusive workplace. We cannot let egreious actions of others, and a truly meritless and irresponsible lawsuit, damage our culture of respect and equal opportunity for all employees. We aspire in our company to do great things: in our games, in our impact on society, and in our work environment. We continue to hold firm to our princples and invest, as we have in the past, the resources to ensure quality opportunities for all employees. We remain committed as a leadership team to doing what is right.
As a reminder, Townsend has only been at Activision Blizzard for less than a year and joined during the COVID-19 pandemic where it is common practice to work from home. She has also gone on record that she has “known Bobby for over a decade and believe[s] in him as a transformational leader” via the press release announcing her new job with the company. “Bobby” is, of course, Activision Blizzard’s CEO Bobby Kotick.
We’ll continue to follow this story as further details become public.
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