California sues Activision over “frat boy” work culture

Activision Blizzard, maker of World of Warcraft, Call of Duty and other popular video games, has a “frat boy” workplace culture in which male employees could “banter about their sexual encounters, talk openly about female bodies and joke about rape,” according to a lawsuit filed by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH)

For that reason and others, the state agency is suing Activision Blizzard, accusing the video game maker of gender pay discrimination and of allowing sexual harassment incidents to go unresolved. 

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, follows a two-year DFEH investigation into Activision’s workplace culture that found evidence of women being subjected to sexual harassment including groping and unwanted advances, as well as pay inequities for women throughout the company, state officials said this week. 

Activision said Thursday the allegations are inaccurate.

“The picture the [DFEH] paints is not the Blizzard workplace of today,” a company spokesperson said in a statement, adding, “we’ve made significant changes to address company culture and reflect more diversity within our leadership teams.”

In the lawsuit, state officials accuse the top executives at Activision Blizzard, all White males, of allowing other male employees to routinely torment female co-workers. The workplace culture had grown so toxic that one female employee committed suicide, according to the suit.

Drunken “cube crawls”

“In the office, women are subjected to cube crawls in which male employees drink copious amounts of alcohol as they ‘crawl’ their way through various cubicles in the office and often engage in inappropriate behavior toward female employees,”
the lawsuit states.

Despite complaints made by women employees to human resources, company officials never took meaningful action to improve conditions, the lawsuit alleges, leading to “a big lack of trust” by female employees in Activision’s HR team. 

According to the suit, a female employee committed suicide while on a company trip due to a sexual relationship she had been having with her male supervisor. Court documents state the deceased woman had been suffering from continuous sexual harassment at work prior to her death, including an incident at a holiday party where male co-workers passed around a graphic nude photo of the female employee, the lawsuit claims. 

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Activision Blizzard criticized California officials in its statement, saying that the fair employment department was supposed to investigate the workplace then have “good faith discussions” with leadership about their findings, but didn’t do so. The company also said it was insensitive for state officials to mention the deceased employee.

“We are sickened by the reprehensible conduct of the [DFEH] to drag into the complaint the tragic suicide of an employee whose passing has no bearing whatsoever on this case and with no regard for her grieving family,” the spokesperson said. 

According to the DFEH in its complaint, attempts made by the agency to resolve the dispute “without litigation,” were unsuccessful.

Women promoted slower, fired faster

Activision Blizzard is a Fortune 500 company that has about 9,500 employees worldwide, 20% of which are women, according to court documents. 

Female employees are often assigned lower level and lower paying jobs, the lawsuit alleges. Women are promoted slower, fired faster and hired based on their looks, state officials said. Activision Blizzard dismissed those allegations as well. 

“We reward and compensate employees based on their performance and we conduct extensive anti-discrimination trainings including for those who are part of the compensation process,” the spokesperson said in a statement. 

Activision Blizzard is just one in a list of employers accused in recent years of cultivating toxic-male workplace environments. Barstool Sports, WeWork, Uber, along with news organizations and tech companies have had struggles making their offices harassment-free for female employees.   

“All employers should ensure that their employees are being paid equally and take all steps to prevent discrimination, harassment and retaliation,” the fair employment department s director Kevin Kish said in a statement. “This is especially important for employers in male-dominated industries, such as technology and gaming.”