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Can Activision Blizzard Reverse its Culture of Harassment and Inequality?

On July 20th, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) filed a lawsuit against Activision Blizzard alleging years of misconduct. The popular gaming company behind World of Warcraft and Candy Crush faces multiple allegations of sexual harassment, gender discrimination, unequal pay, and retaliation against its female employees.

What’s Behind the Lawsuit?

Activision Blizzard was described as having a “frat house” culture, where female employees were routinely subjected to sexist remarks and unwanted groping. Women were allegedly hired to lesser positions and for lower pay than their male counterparts.

The DFEH’s complaint claims that Activision Blizzard’s executives knew of the harassment, failed to stop it, and retaliated against the victims.

Alex Afrasiabi and the “Cosby Suite”

Only two people were directly mentioned in the lawsuit – Activision Blizzard President J. Allen Brack and former employee Alex Afrasiabi.

Afrasiabi is linked to a string of inappropriate behavior at an annual company convention Blizz Con that has been publicly documented on social media. Afrasiabi allegedly attempted to kiss female coworkers, touch them, and tell them that he wanted to marry them.

Afrasiabi’s hotel room was dubbed the “Cosby Suite” in reference to alleged rapist Bill Cosby. He kept a portrait of Cosby in the room, with which many coworkers took photos. Several employees claim that the joke did not have any sexual connotations; however, images posted to social media of the room and the portrait had comments that are sexual in nature.

Employees Walkout after Mixed Reactions from Leadership

Following the DFEH’s lawsuit, Brack called the allegations “troubling,” but he failed to mention that he was directly named in the lawsuit. Rob Kostich, the Activision president, described the allegations at “disturbing” in a company email.

However, Fran Townsend, the company’s Executive Vice President for Corporate Affairs simultaneously distributed an email describing the allegations as “a distorted and untrue picture of our company” and claimed that some of the allegations were “inaccurate” and “taken out of context.”

Employees were enraged by what they saw as a failure to accept responsibility for the company’s history of harassment and discrimination. In protest to the company’s response, many Activision Blizzard employees walked off the job.

The demonstrating employees put forth four demands:

  • Ending mandatory arbitration clauses in their employment contracts
  • Releasing employee compensation data, promotion rates, and salary ranges
  • Adopting new policies to improve the company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion
  • Hiring a third party to audit the company’s structure, executives, and human resources department

In response to the walkout, CEO Bobby Kotick apologized for Activision Blizzard’s initial response and hired a law firm to review their workplace policies and procedures. Kotick further encouraged employees to report any instances of harassment or discrimination that violated the company’s policies.

While Kotick’s response is a step in the right direction, the employees’ demands will take time to implement. Activision Blizzard’s future actions will tell whether their previously accepted misogynistic culture in the past. Hopefully, the lawsuit and ensuing walkout will move them towards a more inclusive workplace where all employees are treated with equality and respect.

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