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

The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) says renowned game publisher Blizzard Entertainment, and its owner Activision Blizzard, have created a culture of “constant sexual harassment” and gender discrimination, in a new lawsuit filed Tuesday. alleging executives were aware and/or involved – and in the hours since the lawsuit was revealed, numerous women have already come forward to substantiate the allegations.

The details are so disturbing that we start with a trigger warning now. Plaintiffs allege that an employee committed suicide after extreme forms of sexual harassment. The idea that male workers held “cube crawls” is one of the tamer allegations in the lawsuit:

Female employees almost universally affirmed that working for defendants was akin to working in a dorm, with male employees invariably drinking and subjecting female employees to sexual harassment without consequence. ‘Cube crawls’ in Defendants’ offices were common and male employees came to work proudly with a hangover. Likewise, male employees would play video games on the job, joke 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 countless 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’ workplace and comment on her breasts. Female employees who worked for the World of Warcraft team noted that male employees and supervisors would attack them, make derogatory comments about rape, and otherwise behave degradingly. This behavior was known and even encouraged by supervisors, including a male supervisor who openly encouraged a male subordinate to “buy” a prostitute to cure his bad temper.

Blizzard president J. Allen Brack is specifically named for being aware of and enabling this type of behavior, and an unnamed former Blizzard CTO “was observed by employees groping drunken female employees at corporate events.” World of Warcraft senior creative director Alex Afrasiabi is also specifically mentioned:

Alex Afrasiabi, the former Senior Creative Director of World of Warcraft at Blizzard Entertainment, was allowed to engage in blatant sexual harassment with little to no repercussions. At a corporate event (an annual convention called Blizz Con), Afrasiabi attacked female employees, told him he wanted to marry them, tried to kiss them and wrapped his arms around them. This was clearly visible to other male employees, including supervisors, who had to step in and rip him off from female employees. Afrasiabi was so well known for harassing women that his suite was nicknamed “Crosby Suite” after alleged rapist Bill Crosby.

We assume the DFEH meant Bill Cosby, but it’s not clear. A few even uglier things are detailed in the full complaint, which we’ve embedded below.

All the alleged sexual harassment comes on top of allegations of discrimination, such as refusals to promote women – “the manager noted that they could not risk promoting her because she could become pregnant and would love to be a mother,” one allegation reads – as well as wage discrimination and outright retaliation. Employees were reportedly “discouraged from complaining because human resources were known to be close to alleged harassment”.

Here is the full statement Activision Blizzard provided to: The edge and other publications, calling the lawsuit “irresponsible behavior by irresponsible state bureaucrats driving many of the state’s best companies out of California”:

We value diversity and strive for a workplace that offers inclusiveness for all. There is no place in our company or industry, or any industry for that matter, for sexual misconduct or harassment of any kind. We take every allegation seriously and investigate all claims. In cases involving misconduct, action has been taken to address the issue.

The DFEH contains distorted and in many cases false descriptions of Blizzard’s past. We cooperated very well with the DFEH during their investigation, including providing extensive data and sufficient documentation, but they refused to inform us of the problems they saw. They were required by law to conduct adequate investigations and conduct good faith discussions with us to better understand and resolve any claims or concerns before filing a lawsuit, but they have not done so. Instead, they rushed to file an inaccurate complaint, as we will demonstrate in court. We are sickened by the DFEH’s reprehensible behavior to bring into the complaint the tragic suicide of an employee whose death has no bearing on this case and without regard for her grieving family. While we find this behavior disgraceful and unprofessional, unfortunately it is an example of how they behaved during their investigation. It is this kind of irresponsible behavior by irresponsible state bureaucrats that drives many of the best state companies out of California.

The picture that the DFEH paints is not the Blizzard workplace of today. In recent years and since the inception of the initial survey, we have made significant changes to address corporate culture and reflect greater diversity within our leadership teams. We’ve strengthened internal programs and channels for employees to report violations, including the “QUESTION List” with a confidential integrity hotline, and introduced an employee relations team dedicated to investigating employee concerns. We have strengthened our commitment to diversity, equality and inclusion and combined our global employee networks to provide additional support. Employees must also undergo regular anti-harassment training and have done so for many years.

We go to great lengths to create fair and rewarding compensation packages and policies that reflect our culture and company, and we strive to pay all employees fairly for equal or substantially comparable work. We take several proactive steps to ensure that reward is determined by non-discriminatory factors. For example, we reward and reward employees based on their performance, and we provide extensive anti-discrimination training, including for those who are part of the reward process.

We are confident in our ability to demonstrate our practices as an equal opportunity employer promoting a supportive, diverse and inclusive workplace for our people, and we are committed to continuing this effort in the years to come. It’s a shame the DFEH didn’t want to talk to us about what they thought they saw in their research.

Since the lawsuit was revealed, at least five former Blizzard employees have taken to social media to confirm details, such as the “cube crawl,” or whether they experienced sexual harassment, or saw it happen, or whether they actually appeared anonymously in the suit. We don’t embed or link to their posts without permission, as we fear they may be targeted online as well.

The California DFEH was also involved in a major lawsuit against Riot Games against sexual harassment and discrimination, which initially ended in a settlement of just $10 million before the DFEH suggested it should be $400 million or more.