‘Frat boy culture’: Activision Blizzard taken to court over discrimination against female employees

Employees are increasingly taking a public stand against companies fostering discriminatory or toxic cultures, with Activision Blizzard joining BrewDog in the firing line.

Following a two-year investigation, California is taking video games company Activision Blizzard to court over allegations of sexual harassment, unequal pay and discrimination against its female employees.

The company behind Call of Duty, World of Warcraft and Candy Crush has been accused of cultivating an internal “frat boy culture” by the state’s department of fair employment and housing (DFEH).

The complaint, filed last week, claims female employees at Activision Blizzard start on lower pay and earn less than male employees doing similar work. The company has also been accused of allowing male employees to play video games while delegating their responsibilities to women.

Female employees were allegedly subjected to “cube crawls”, in which inebriated male employees crawled through office cubicles and engaged in inappropriate behaviour. The DFEH’s investigation also found male employees joked about rape and their sexual encounters.

Women of colour were particularly discriminated against, while “numerous” formal complaints were dismissed and not kept confidential. As a result, female employees who complained were subject to retaliation, including being deprived work on projects, unwilling transferrals and selection for lay offs.

Female employees are subjected to constant sexual harassment. High ranking executives engaged in blatant sexual harassment without repercussions.

California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH)

The government agency said it had tried to resolve the issue with Activision Blizzard without resorting to litigation, but had been unsuccessful. It is now seeking punitive and compensatory damages, penalties under the Equal Pay Act and back pay.

“Female employees are subjected to constant sexual harassment,” the DFEH alleged. “High ranking executives and creators engaged in blatant sexual harassment without repercussions.”

According to the DFEH, only 20% of Activision Blizzard’s 9,500 employees are women, with leadership primarily white and male.

In an initial statement responding to the allegations, Activision Blizzard called the complaint “distorted” and “in many cases, false”. The company said the accusations did not reflect the workplace “of today” and pointed towards new anti-harassment training and a confidential line for employees to report violations.

Subsequent internal emails from Blizzard president J Allen Brack and Activision president Rob Kostich, seen by reporters at Bloomberg and Polygon, admitted the allegations were “extremely troubling” and “disturbing”. They promised to investigate all claims and hold any wrong-doers to account, though did not affirm that such behaviour had occurred.

Over 20 Activision Blizzard employees have publicly criticised the response, with some World of Warcraft developers refusing to work for a day in solidarity with the victims. Some players of the game staged an in-game protest in response to the allegations.‘Lies, hypocrisy and deceit’: BrewDog’s brand health takes hit from allegations

Former Burger King CMO Fernando Machado took on the CMO role at the company earlier this year, after seven years with the fast food business. He became renowned during his tenure for high profile PR stunts and campaigns.

Activision Blizzard is the second major brand to be called out by former and current employees this summer for fostering a toxic workplace culture.

In June, former staff of craft beer company BrewDog wrote an open letter accusing the business of a “toxic attitude” and creating an internal “culture of fear”, as well as using “lies, hypocrisy and deceit” to generate positive PR for the brand.

The letter, published on Twitter, was initially signed by more than 60 ex-staff members under the name ‘Punks with Purpose’, in a nod to the brand’s flagship Punk IPA beer. That number grew to more than 250, according to the BBC, while others are said to have agreed with the allegations raised but “did not feel safe” signing.

Like Activision Blizzard, BrewDog initially refuted the allegations, before bowing to criticism and promising to “listen, learn and act” on the allegations.BrewDog told to ‘get its house in order’ before being controversial after latest stunt

The brand later found itself in hot water again for violating advertising rules with “misleading” and “irresponsible” messaging around its hard seltzer product. After complaining about the ruling on social media, consumers told CEO James Watt that he should get the business’s house in order first before trying to be edgy.

While BrewDog’s brand health plummeted in the early days after the initial scandal, purchase intent saw relatively little change. However, Marketing Week columnist Colin Lewis suggests the harm to the brand could emerge in the long-term.