The Wall Street Journal has posted an extensive report about Activision-Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, specifically how he has, to some extent, been involved with or aware of various cases of harassment and discrimination within the company, despite feigning ignorance about it in public statements.
The story recounts multiple instances of Kotick’s documented or accounted knowledge of instances of harassment cases at Activision-Blizzard, and how the CEO was allegedly complicit or made aware of these cases. Kotick was on record as saying situations outlined in the State of California lawsuit regarding the company’s culture as “a distorted and untrue picture of our company,” but WSJ’s report makes note of several points over the years where Kotick was involved in some way with these cases either by proximity or by being directly informed by employees. The whole thing is pretty long, and I recommend reading the full thing for a broad picture of how Kotick was reportedly well aware of the same working conditions he denied when it went public.
Some notable examples include not informing the company’s board of directors about an alleged rape case in 2016 and 2017 within Sledgehammer Games, as well as the out-of-court settlement that followed. Kotick also reportedly intervened to keep alleged harassers like Treyarch Co-Head Dan Bunting within the company following an HR recommendation he should be fired. Kotick’s knowledge of the ongoing harassment within Activision-Blizzard is a subject of the SEC’s recent subpoena of the company.
Beyond Kotick, the report also touches on the recent departure of Jen Oneal, who had been established as a co-leader of Activision-Blizzard in an effort to right the ship following the lawsuit. WSJ says in an email to Activision’s legal team, Oneal said she had no faith that she’d be able to enact meaningful change because she kept running into walls and friction with other leadership, saying “it was clear that the company would never prioritize our people the right way.” Oneal’s position was notable, as she was the first woman to lead an Activision-Blizzard business unit. Workers still within Activision-Blizzard have noted that Oneal being part of the company’s leadership was exciting, and that she was one of the only people within management that made them feel like their concerns were being heard.
Jen, if you see this, I hope you know how much your presence meant to us in the company. You were a true leader. We hope your adventures take you to bigger and better things. You deserve it. ????
— ABetterABK ???? ABK Workers Alliance (@ABetterABK) November 16, 2021
More on the Activision-Blizzard lawsuit:
- Activision-Blizzard Employees to Stage Walkout to Protest Workplace Harassment
- New Lawsuit Alleges Activision-Blizzard Threatened Organizing Employees
- Overwatch Hero Jesse McCree is Now Cole Cassidy
Altogether, it seems like Activision-Blizzard is still in a shit state, though organizing workers have expressed that some of the recently-announced goals the company has put in place are in line with their demands. However, there’s still an issue of WilmerHale’s third-party investigation, which, along with its known anti-union stance, has workers concerned about leadership’s intentions. As of last month, Activision-Blizzard has fired 20 employees following investigations into workplace misconduct.
Update: According to Bloomberg reporter Jason Schreier, Activision-Blizzard employees are being given next week off for Thanksgiving, but sources said workers theorize this was in an attempt to boost company morale after WSJ’s report.
Incidentally, Activision emailed employees yesterday saying they'd get the entirety of next week off for Thanksgiving, which a few now theorize was to try to boost morale ahead of today's WSJ article
— Jason Schreier (@jasonschreier) November 16, 2021
In response to all of the above, Activision-Blizzard workers are staging a walkout and calling for Kotick’s replacement as CEO, as well as an employee-designated investigation in place of WilmerHale. This is the second walkout Activision-Blizzard employees have partaken in since the lawsuit’s publication, with the first taking place back in July.
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
Update: Activision-Blizzard has released an official statement regarding Wall Street Journal’s report, reiterating goals the company has established, but goes out of its way to highlight Kotick’s involvement and its confidence in his leadership. It also says that the board thinks Kotick “appropriately addressed workplace issues brought to his attention.” And if even half the things in WSJ’s report are true, that just sounds like an indictment of the board, at this point.
The full statement reads as follows:
“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.”
Update: New reports have been published by IGN and Washington Post that have brought more context and new developments to the situation surrounding Oneal’s resignation and the state of Kotick’s position as CEO of Activision-Blizzard.
First, IGN has new information on Oneal’s pay disparity with Mike Ybarra, both of whom were meant to co-lead Blizzard following the departure of J. Allen Brack in August. According to the report, Ybarra sent a message to Blizzard employees in the company’s Slack, which said he and Oneal asked for pay parity, but Oneal was only offered the same amount of money as Ybarra after she put in her resignation.
“Hello Blizzard, please see the email I sent this morning. I know many leaders plan to meet with their teams throughout the day. This is a difficult time for all of us, myself included. I have been asked and want to make it clear: Jen and I shared with management that we wanted to be paid the same to co-lead Blizzard together,” Ybarra wrote. “As a leader, equality in its broadest sense is something I 100% stand behind. As a team, I share our desire for change and growth. I’m committed to fostering that with all of you to make Blizzard what we all want it to be. I will be sending out a video shortly to all of Blizzard. Thank you and know that I am processing today’s news — and struggling in areas like many of you.”
Following this, a Blizzard employee asked why leadership would have rejected his and Oneal’s requests for equal compensation in the first place, to which Ybarra responded saying that it was rooted in the two’s previous roles and their pay disparity there. “Jen and I were both on existing contracts. I ran [Battle.net & Online Products] and she ran [Vicarious Visions] so our pay was different. The first time both Jen and I were offered a new contract, it was the same across both of us for the new co-leader of Blizzard roles, so our compensation was going to be the same.”
Oneal responded to this, saying she didn’t want to take part “in a debate” on the company’s Slack, but clarified she wasn’t offered equivalent compensation until after she turned in her resignation, though she says the company said it was working on a new proposal before.
“When Mike and I were placed in the same co-lead role, we went into the role with our previous compensation, which was not equivalent. It remained that way for some time well after we made multiple rejected requests to change it to parity,” Oneal wrote. “While the company informed me before I tendered my resignation that they were working on a new proposal, we were made equivalent offers only after I tendered that resignation.”
As for Kotick, the Washington Post reports that a group of Activision-Blizzard shareholders is joining the workers in calling for the CEO’s resignation. The group led by the Strategic Organizing Center (SOC) Investment Group collectively has 4.8 million shares in the company and cites Kotick’s hiding the truth of several harassment cases as the reason for its call for his resignation in a joint letter shared to the Washington Post.
“In contrast to past company statements, CEO Bobby Kotick was aware of many incidents of sexual harassment, sexual assault and gender discrimination at Activision Blizzard, but failed either to ensure that the executives and managers responsible were terminated or to recognize and address the systematic nature of the company’s hostile workplace culture.”
Kotick isn’t the only one the shareholders are calling to resign, as the group also calls for the retirement of board directors Brian Kelly and Robert Morgado by December 31. Kelly is chairman of Activision-Blizzard, while Morgado acts as a lead independent director. The group’s letter says that if Kotick, Kelly, and Morgado don’t step down, they won’t vote for the reelection of current directors on the board during June’s annual shareholder meeting. The shareholders group told Washington Post that Kelly and Morgado are being singled out as the two longest-standing board members, having been part of the board since 1995 and 1997 respectively. SOC Executive Director Dieter Waizenegger says the shareholders want to see Kelly and Morgado replaced with diverse directors, and for at least one spot to be given to an Activision-Blizzard employee who isn’t an executive.
“After the new revelations, it’s clear that the current leadership repeatedly failed to uphold a safe workplace — a basic function of their job,” Waizenegger told Washington Post. “Activision Blizzard needs a new CEO, board chair, and lead independent director with the expertise, skill set and conviction to truly change the company’s culture. We need to really have a reset button on the board.”
According to the Washington Post, the letter has been signed by Australian retail fund Future Super, Canada groups NEI Investments and Shareholder Association for Research & Education (SHARE) and Verve Super, an Australian fund for women.
Update: According to a new report from Bloomberg, Sony has been in contact with Activision-Blizzard regarding the original Wall Street Journal story.
In an email sent to Sony employees verified by Bloomberg, Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Jim Ryan said he had been “disheartened and frankly stunned” the original report. He also said he had been in contact with Activision after the article went live, saying he found their response inadequate across the board.
“We outreached to Activision immediately after the article was published to express our deep concern and to ask how they plan to address the claims made in the article,” he wrote in the email. “We do not believe their statements of response properly address the situation.”
While Ryan didn’t say anything about possible action Sony might take, Bloomberg does point out that the company has taken games down from its services like Cyberpunk 2077 before. It would be wild, but surprising, if Call of Duty: Vanguard were to suddenly vanish from the PlayStation Store. Though he did say Sony “is committed to ensuring our community of developers and gamers feel safe and respected, and providing a secure work environment for every employee,” and encouraged workers to report any instances of harassment.
Whatever interactions are going on between Sony and Activision-Blizzard, the company also doubled down on its support of Kotick in an all-hands meeting earlier this morning, November 17. According to a report from Game Developer, Activision-Blizzard leadership responded to questions about the recent no tolerance policy enacted at the company, and whether or not it would apply to Kotick given the WSJ report. The leadership said the company didn’t “have evidence” of much of Kotick’s actions, saying they happened over a decade ago. It’s unclear what specifically this response was in reference to, as the original report referenced multiple events that happened as recently as 2017.
Update: The #ABetterABK movement has released a petition signed by over 500 current Activision-Blizzard employees calling for the removal of Bobby Kotick as CEO. The letter says Kotick’s behavior outlined in the WSJ report “runs counter to the culture and integrity [the workers] require of [their] leadership–and directly conflicts with the initiatives started by [their] peers.” The group also calls for the board to replace him with a new CEO to be determined without Kotick’s input.
We, the undersigned, no longer have confidence in the leadership of Bobby Kotick as the CEO of Activision Blizzard. The information that has come to light about his behaviors and practices in the running of our companies runs counter to the culture and integrity we require of our leadership–and directly conflicts with the initiatives started by our peers. We ask that Bobby Kotick remove himself as CEO of Activision Blizzard, and that shareholders be allowed to select the new CEO without the input of Bobby, who we are aware owns a substantial portion of the voting rights of the shareholders.
Update: Sony isn’t the only platform holder unhappy with the state of things at Activision-Blizzard, as Microsoft is reportedly also weighing its relationship with the company.
In an email sent to Microsoft employees verified by Bloomberg, Head of Xbox Phil Spencer said he is “disturbed and deeply troubled by the horrific events and actions” laid out in WSJ’s original report. Spencer’s email also said he would be taking some kind of action, and that he is “evaluating all aspects of our relationship with Activision Blizzard and making ongoing proactive adjustments.” What that means at the moment is unclear, but console creators like Microsoft and Sony do hold some level of power to remove games from storefronts. So if Spencer or Ryan ends up taking substantial action, it might put Activision-Blizzard’s feet to the fire.
In a statement regarding this issued to Bloomberg, an Activision representative said the company is “committed to the work of ensuring [its] culture and workplace are safe, diverse, and inclusive.” Not committed enough to kick Kotick to the curb, however.
Activision’s full statement to Bloomberg reads as follows:
“We respect all feedback from our valued partners and are engaging with them further,” Activision said in a statement. “We have detailed important changes we have implemented in recent weeks, and we will continue to do so. We are committed to the work of ensuring our culture and workplace are safe, diverse, and inclusive. We know it will take time, but we will not stop until we have the best workplace for our team.”
Update: Nintendo has also responded internally to the WSJ report. Get the full story on that here at Fanbyte.
After Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo have all voiced their various scruples with the state of Activision-Blizzard, the company’s board of directors has released a new statement once again doubling down on supporting Kotick while forming what it calls a “Workplace Responsibility Committee.” The committee will be made up of two independent directors that will look at the company’s progress in implementing the new policies the company outlined regarding eliminating workplace harassment. Including the zero-tolerance policy that applies to everyone but Kotick. The two directors heading the committee include Dawn Ostroff (current CCO and advertising business officer of Spotify) and Reveta Bowers (former administrator at the Center for Early Education). The committee will also be working with an independent legal counsel, as well as outside consultants and advisors.
Activision-Blizzard will report to Ostroff and Bowers with “key performance indicators” meant to show progress on the company’s diversity and anti-harassment initiatives. All in the name of ensuring accountability. But not for Kotick, who will be providing these reports alongside Chief People Officer Julie Hodges and Chief Compliance Officer Frances Townsend.
Update: Jessica Gonzalez, a senior test analyst at Blizzard and vocal member of the #ABetterABK movement, has resigned from the company following inaction within the company to do right by the movement’s demands, and Kotick’s continued employment. She posted her resignation message on Twitter (which was posted to the company Slack), where she asserts that while she still believes Activision-Blizzard can become a better company for women and marginalized employees, she has been “mentally wounded” by the fight.
She also took a moment to address Kotick directly, saying his “inaction and refusal to take accountability is driving out great talent,” and that the company and its games will suffer until he is removed from his position as CEO.
My resignation from Blizzard Entertainment pic.twitter.com/eJeTsYGFv8
— Jessica Gonzalez☮️???? (@_TechJess) November 30, 2021
She also apparently had a parting gift for Kotick, which was to add him to the Slack channel made for memes and organizing within the company. Although Gonzalez notes Kotick probably doesn’t read the company Slack anyway. Man couldn’t even be bothered to upload an avatar.
— Jessica Gonzalez☮️???? (@_TechJess) November 30, 2021
Update: The Wall Street Journal has released a new report, in which it revealed Activision-Blizzard has fired around three dozen employees and disciplined around 40 others as it looks further into issues of harassment and discrimination at the company. The publisher was apparently set to release this information publicly, but was, according to WSJ’s sources, held back by Kotick, who allegedly told others this information would make issues seem worse than they already do. Speaking to the outlet on behalf of Activision, Helaine Klasky confirmed the numbers (37 “exited,” 44 disciplined), but denied Kotick had pushed back against revealing this information publicly. She instead said the company was “making sure [it had] accurate data and analysis to share.”
The summary WSJ’s sources say was meant to be released publicly also noted a total of 700 reports of harassment and discrimination, however, Klasky says this number includes social media statements, which range from what she calls “benign workplace concerns,” to “a small number” of serious concerns under investigation.
This is a developing story and will be updated as new information comes.