Oh my sweet summer child, you thought Activision-Blizzard might make it a whole week without another story in its ongoing sexual discrimination and harassment scandal, but it was not to be.
Throughout the entire lawsuit scandal, Bobby Kotick has attempted to project empathy and calm, while allowing proxies to send disparaging emails to employees and contracted law firms to “investigate” and (allegedly, according to the state of California) presided over a company accused of shredding evidence in the lawsuits. However, Kotick was apparently aware of the video game culture that his staff has alternately denied and downplayed and implied is old and specific to Blizzard, as the Wall Street Journal has revealed in a fresh exposé today.
WSJ covers a 2018 lawsuit revolving around a male Activision staffer who raped a female subordinate. Activision settled out of court, but apparently Kotick withheld the entire situation from the board of directors. This new information, along with multiple other documents provided to the WSJ, suggests that Kotick’s insistence that he wasn’t cognizant of the depth and breadth of misconduct going on in the company was a lie. Kotick, of course, has already been subpoenaed in the federal SEC lawsuit over the company’s failure to disclose this type of information.
The most eyepopping part of the piece actually centers not on Kotick but on Jen Oneal, who was appointed to co-lead Blizzard along with Mike Ybarra when J. Allen Brack was ousted from the top job. Oneal told the Journal that she herself was sexually harassed and underpaid for her work.
“The following month, [Oneal] sent an email to a member of Activision’s legal team in which she professed a lack of faith in Activision’s leadership to turn the culture around, saying ‘it was clear that the company would never prioritize our people the right way.’ Ms. Oneal said in the email she had been sexually harassed earlier in her career at Activision, and that she was paid less than her male counterpart at the helm of Blizzard, and wanted to discuss her resignation. ‘I have been tokenized, marginalized, and discriminated against,’ wrote Ms. Oneal, who is Asian-American and gay.”
Oneal announced she was leaving her role as co-lead after just three months during the recent quarterly earnings call, prompting speculation as to what caused her resignation, which was buffeted by a large donation from Activision-Blizzard to her activism. We note here that Oneal’s original appointment was plainly a move on the part of the company to demonstrate that contrary to the lawsuit, it does not engage in gendered pay discrimination. And then it proceeded to not pay her the same as her co-lead, thereby demonstrating once more for the record that it is full of shit and also extremely stupid.
Two additional things of note in the WSJ piece. First, Kotick is known for having lost a sexual discrimination lawsuit lodged by his private plane’s steward, but there were apparently other accusations: “Mr. Kotick himself has been accused by several women of mistreatment both inside and outside the workplace, and in some instances has worked to settle the complaints quickly and quietly, according to people familiar with the incidents and documents reviewed by the Journal,” WSJ says. That includes a situation in 2006, when an assistant said he left her a voice mail threatening to have her killed. It was settled out of court; Activision acknowledged that it happened and said Kotick regrets it.
And second, it seems as if the WSJ has confirmed who wrote the initial “distorted and untrue picture of our company” staff email when the California DFEH lawsuit came down in July: Kotick himself. The paper says that according to its source, “Kotick drafted an email that he had another executive send to employees under [Fran Townsend’s] name that dismissed California’s allegations.” He then turned around and called that email “tone-deaf,” thereby throwing Townsend under a bus. Huh.
Activision-Blizzard stock has fallen around 14% following its weak earnings call at the beginning of November; though it had recovered somewhat, it’s down again on the news today, as first noticed by Bloomberg, which notes the stock has lost a quarter of its value since the first lawsuit. It’s unclear what the board will do next; it’s already stripped Kotick of his entire salary and compensation for the year.
If the board is looking for ideas, the A Better ABK proto-union has one: Kotick’s complete removal from his role. The group is planning another company-wide walkout today.
We have instituted our own Zero Tolerance Policy. We will not be silenced until Bobby Kotick has been replaced as CEO, and continue to hold our original demand for Third-Party review by an employee-chosen source. We are staging a Walkout today. We welcome you to join us.
— ABetterABK 💙 ABK Workers Alliance (@ABetterABK) November 16, 2021
Activision-Blizzard did pen a statement in response to the WSJ’s piece.
“We are disappointed in the Wall Street Journal’s report, which presents a misleading view of Activision Blizzard and our CEO. Instances of sexual misconduct that were brought to his attention were acted upon. The WSJ ignores important changes underway to make this the industry’s most welcoming and inclusive workplace and it fails to account for the efforts of thousands of employees who work hard every day to live up to their – and our – values. The constant desire to be better has always set this company apart. Which is why, at Mr. Kotick’s direction, we have made significant improvements, including a zero-tolerance policy for inappropriate conduct. And it is why we are moving forward with unwavering focus, speed, and resources to continue increasing diversity across our company and industry and to ensure that every employee comes to work feeling valued, safe, respected, and inspired. We will not stop until we have the best workplace for our team.”
The whole saga:
“I want to talk with you today about our future and reiterate my conviction to create the most welcoming and inclusive workplace.
“Over the last few months, so many of you have generously and candidly shared your experiences and your insights about the type of company you want us to be.
“We’ve taken meaningful actions to improve our company and our culture. But there is more to do. To become the model workplace we all aspire to be, more change is required. But I am so confident we will get there.
“There will, of course, be continued media attention about us and our industry over the next few months. In fact, there’s an article today that paints an inaccurate and misleading view of our company, of me personally, and my leadership.
“I want to say two important things about this:
“First, we are incredibly fortunate to have the most talented people in our industry all so committed to constant improvement. And I share this commitment.
“The second thing I want to say is that anyone who doubts my conviction to be the most welcoming, inclusive workplace doesn’t really appreciate how important this is to me.
“Creativity and inspiration thrives best in a safe, welcoming, respectful environment. There is no substitute for that. And staying true to our values, without exceptions, is the best way to retain our talent and to attract the new talent we need to achieve our great potential.
“As I have made clear, we are moving forward with a new zero tolerance policy for inappropriate behavior — and zero means zero. Any reprehensible conduct is simply unacceptable.
“We have a chance to further enhance our culture and be the example other companies will follow. And we are so incredibly fortunate. Connecting and engaging the world through joy and fun is a powerful mission. Accomplishing this in a welcoming, inclusive workplace ensures we will achieve our mission with excellence.
“Over the last few years our industry has had an uncomfortable spotlight that’s been illuminating opportunities for us to change. And we must all, including me, embrace this need for change, so we can bring our very best selves to the very best place to work.
“Thank you for your commitment to a culture of respect, your appreciation for the unique talents we each possess, and for maintaining the very best environment for all of us to work.
“For that, I am truly grateful.”
The board of directors has also penned a statement signaling its intent to stand with Kotick.
“The Activision Blizzard Board remains committed to the goal of making Activision Blizzard the most welcoming and inclusive company in the industry. Under Bobby Kotick’s leadership the Company is already implementing industry leading changes including a zero tolerance harassment policy, a dedication to achieving significant increases to the percentages of women and non-binary people in our workforce and significant internal and external investments to accelerate opportunities for diverse talent. The Board remains confident that Bobby Kotick appropriately addressed workplace issues brought to his attention.
“The goals we have set for ourselves are both critical and ambitious. The Board remains confident in Bobby Kotick’s leadership, commitment and ability to achieve these goals.”
The walkout is still happening. WAPO reports it’s a virtual and physical walkout that has expanded to call for more than just Kotick to resign. The company, which as been accused by the state of California of retaliating against workers, promises not to retaliate against workers striking today.
Activision Blizzard employees also plan to walk out physically, meeting at the Irvine, California campus at noon pacific time, in about an hour. Employees also demand that Chief Admin Officer Brian Bulato, and Corporate Affairs VP Frances Townsend resign.
— Shannon Liao (@Shannon_Liao) November 16, 2021
— Adam Holisky 💙 (@AdamHolisky) November 16, 2021
— Valentine Powell 💙🏳️🌈🏳️⚧️ (@valentine_irl) November 16, 2021