Protocol | Workplace

Activision Blizzard scrambles to repair its toxic image amid growing industry outcry

Blizzard President J. Allen Brack is the first executive to depart amid the sexual harassment crisis.

Activision walkout

Activision Blizzard doesn't seem committed to lasting change.

Photo: Allen J. Schaben/Getty Images

As Activision Blizzard's workplace crisis rages on into its third week, the company is taking measures to try to calm the storm — to little avail. On Tuesday, Blizzard President J. Allen Brack, who took the reins at the developer responsible for World of Warcraft back in 2018, resigned. He's to be replaced by executives Jen Oneal and Mike Ybarra, who will co-lead the studio in a power-sharing agreement some believe further solidifies CEO Bobby Kotick's control over the subsidiary.

Nowhere in Blizzard's statement about Brack's departure does it mention California's explosive sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit at the heart of the saga. The lawsuit, filed last month, resulted last week in a 500-person walkout at Blizzard's headquarters in Irvine. (Among the attendees was none other than Ybarra, the new studio co-head.)

Activision Blizzard so far appears uncommitted to lasting change. The company has made numerous empty gestures aimed at placating employee concerns and salvaging a falling stock price. Many of them seem self-serving.

  • Company management offered employees paid time off to participate in the walkout, giving it an air of corporate sponsorship that walkout organizers were specifically trying to avoid. Meanwhile, the company has hired a law firm known for its union-busting efforts. Walkout organizers, now calling themselves the ABK Workers Alliance, have since released a statement condemning the hiring of WilmerHale.
  • Controversies surrounding Fran Townsend, the company's executive vice president for corporate affairs, continue to pile up. In the wake of the lawsuit, Townsend sent an email to employees dismissing the allegations as "meritless" and "untrue." The executive then tweeted an Atlantic story criticizing whistleblowers and began blocking Activision Blizzard employees for sounding off in her replies.
  • Kotick sent a letter to employees last week in which he called the company's initial defensive response to the lawsuit "tone deaf," yet only after the company's stock price began tumbling. Activision Blizzard shares are down more than 15% since early July.

Stories of misconduct continue to pour out. The initial wave of revelations following news of the lawsuit involved shocking stories, including the so-called "Cosby suite" of disgraced former Blizzard creative director Alex Afrasiabi. Now, as more in the industry continue to speak out, we're starting to see the fuller picture of toxic rot at the heart of Activision Blizzard's culture.

  • An Activision IT worker admitted in 2018 to installing spy cameras in the women's bathroom in the company's Minnesota office. The employee, Tony Ray Nixon, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor privacy violation.
  • Security engineer Emily Mitchell said at Black Hat 2015 that she was mocked and harassed by Blizzard employees at the company's own booth, in which she was asked whether she "liked to be penetrated," according to Waypoint. Black Hat has since banned Blizzard from sponsoring the conference.
  • A shocking IGN report detailed how male Blizzard employees would often walk into the office's breastfeeding rooms without knocking and refuse to leave until asked. The company later put locks on the doors.
Activision Blizzard addressed the ongoing crisis in its Q2 2021 earnings report and investor call on Tuesday. "Our work environment, everywhere we operate, will not permit discrimination harassment or unequal treatment. We will be the company that sets the example for this in our industry," Kotick said in the opening of the call.
  • The company released a statement as part of its earnings report titled "Commitment to a Safe Work Environment," and California's lawsuit was added to its list of risk factors: "If we experience prolonged periods of adverse publicity, significantly reduced productivity or other negative consequences relating to this matter, our business likely would be adversely impacted."
  • Just minutes prior to the call, Bloomberg reported that Jesse Meschuk, the company's SVP of Global Human Resources, is no longer with the company.
  • Activision Blizzard was hit with a class action lawsuit on Tuesday filed on behalf of investors over its failure to disclose its ongoing sexual harassment and discrimination issues, Kotaku reported. This second lawsuit, from the Rosen Law Firm, could further complicate the company's attempts to shelter its lucrative business from the ongoing workplace issues.

. Despite sorrowful apologies from former company leaders, current management at Activision Blizzard has been tight-lipped. When execs have spoken out, they've often been combative and dismissive. That's beginning to change, as we saw on the investor call. But the company has yet to acknowledge any of the demands made by organizers of last week's walkout, including an end to the forced arbitration agreements that have helped guard many of the company's worst workplace abuses.

Perhaps Activision Blizzard management hopes this will all blow over in time to announce this year's annual Call of Duty game later this summer. But that's wishful thinking. There's no indication the storm is subsiding, and employees who attended last week's walkout now say, "This is the beginning of an enduring movement." That doesn't end with just one executive falling on the sword.

Update: This story was updated to include details from Activision Blizzard's Q2 2021 earnings report and investor call.

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