Thursday, December 2, 2021

Activision Blizzard’s rot goes all the way to the CEO, alleges bombshell report

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Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick has been aware of sexual misconduct allegations at the company for years and has had his own history of harassment and abusive behavior, according to a bombshell report in The Wall Street Journal.

The report contains many shocking and previously unreported allegations about Activision Blizzard, which has been under intense scrutiny following the state of California’s July lawsuit alleging the company has a culture of “constant sexual harassment.” The problems appear to go all the way to the top, as the new WSJ report contains numerous troubling stories of Kotick’s awareness of problems and of his own behavior.

In one instance, Kotick was aware that a former female employee at an Activision-owned studio alleged she was raped by her male supervisor, according to the WSJ, but Kotick reportedly kept this information from his own board of directors and didn’t tell them about the eventual settlement with the employee.

Here is one particularly horrifying story about Kotick’s own alleged behavior:

In 2006, one of his assistants complained that he had harassed her, including by threatening in a voice mail to have her killed, according to people familiar with the matter. He settled the matter out of court, the people said.

And another:

In 2007, he was sued by the flight attendant on a private jet he co-owned. The flight attendant claimed the plane’s pilot had sexually harassed her, and, after she complained to the other owner, Mr. Kotick fired her. The defendants denied the allegations. In a separate action related to legal fees in the case, an arbitrator, citing what he said was sworn testimony, wrote that Mr. Kotick told the flight attendant and her attorneys, “I’m going to destroy you.” A spokesman for Mr. Kotick denied that he said that.

In 2008, they settled by paying the attendant $200,000, according to the arbitrator’s decision. A spokesman for Mr. Kotick said he couldn’t have fired her in retaliation for complaining because she never complained directly to him.

The WSJ also reports that Kotick himself was the one who drafted the widely criticized letter that was supposedly written by Activision Blizzard exec Frances Townsend. Townsend, a woman, was publicly shamed and saw calls for her resignation.

In another letter shared publicly shortly after, Kotick apologized for the “Townsend letter,” saying “our initial responses to the issues we face together, and to your concerns, were, quite frankly, tone deaf.” He apparently didn’t see fit to mention that he drafted it in the first place.

A company spokesperson appeared to confirm his involvement with the “Townsend letter” by telling the WSJ that Kotick takes responsibility for and regrets his participation. “Ms. Townsend should not be blamed for this mistake,” the spokesperson said.

In that second Kotick memo, he announced that Activision Blizzard had hired an independent law firm to review the company’s practices — known union-busting law firm WilmerHale. Since then, the state of California has accused Activision Blizzard and WilmerHale of “withholding and suppressing evidence.”

Another shocking revelation from the new WSJ report is about Jen Oneal, who stepped down as co-lead of Blizzard three months after taking the role. She was appointed co-head of the studio in August alongside former Xbox exec Mike Ybarra after previous Blizzard president J. Allen Brack left the company. According to the WSJ, just one month after being appointed, Oneal wrote an email to the company’s legal team saying that she had been sexually harassed while at Activision Blizzard, that she was being paid less than Ybarra, and that she wanted to resign. “I have been tokenized, marginalized, and discriminated against,” Oneal wrote, according to the WSJ.

This summary only scratches the surface of what’s included in the report, which you should read in full.

An Activision Blizzard spokesperson shared this statement in response to The Verge’s questions about the report:

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.

Kotick also pushed back on the WSJ’s report in a video message sent to employees on Tuesday and subsequently shared with the world in the form of a written transcript. While he doesn’t commit to any new changes at the company, he does reiterate that “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.”

In response, A Better ABK, an advocacy group formed by Activision Blizzard employees, said that it “will not be silenced until Bobby Kotick has been replaced as CEO.” The group says it will be hosting a walkout on Tuesday. Employees also walked out in July.

In October, Kotick took a massive pay cut and said that the company would be waiving forced arbitration for sexual harassment and discrimination claims. The Securities and Exchange Commission subpoenaed the company and many senior execs, including Kotick, in September.





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