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Activision Blizzard sued by California over alleged culture of sexual harassment and discrimination

The lawsuit claims the company condoned a "hostile work environment"

The State of California is suing Activision Blizzard after a two-year investigation into the company has revealed an alleged culture of sexual harassment, discrimination, unequal pay, and more disturbing allegations besides. The lawsuit, filed by the State's Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), alleges the company has a "frat boy" culture that has created "a breeding ground for harassment and discrimination against women". Activision Blizzard have staunchly denied these claims.

Content warning: the lawsuit contains allegations that some readers might find upsetting. We've not described these events in detail, but be aware this article mentions sexual harassment and suicide.

According to the lawsuit (via Bloomberg), women at the company "almost universally confirmed that working for Defendants was akin to working in a frat house, which invariably involved male employees drinking and subjecting female employees to sexual harassment with no repercussion".

Male employees would allegedly delegate work to their female coworkers while they played games, as well as "banter about their sexual encounters, talk openly about female bodies, and make numerous jokes about rape."

Examples of the alleged harassment cases are difficult to read. The filing claims Activision Blizzard wouldn't deal with a harasser due to his senior position at the company, despite a number of incidents involving alleged groping, harassment and derogatory behaviour. At one point it also claims a female employee took her own life as a result of sexual harassment.

The filing further claims that "numerous complaints" about harassment and discrimination were made to Activision Blizzard's HR and higher-ups, including Blizzard Entertainment's president J. Allen Brack. However, these were allegedly "treated in a perfunctory and dismissive manner and not kept confidential" which supposedly lead to retaliation, including removals from projects and layoffs.

"Defendants continuously condone the quid pro quo and hostile work environment," the DFEH alleges. "This message is not lost on their employees."

Elsewhere in the lawsuit, it's alleged that "women across the company are assigned to lower paid and lower opportunity levels". They claim Activision Blizzard "promote women more slowly and terminate them more quickly than their male counterparts", and that women of colour were "particularly vulnerable targets of Defendants' discriminatory practices".

In a statement to The Verge, Activision Blizzard acknowledged the investigation, but denied the allegations within it, suggesting the alleged archaic behaviours are a thing of the past:

"We value diversity and strive to foster a workplace that offers inclusivity for everyone. There is no place in our company or industry, or any industry, for sexual misconduct or harassment of any kind. We take every allegation seriously and investigate all claims. In cases related to misconduct, action was taken to address the issue.

"The DFEH includes distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard’s past. We have been extremely cooperative with the DFEH throughout their investigation, including providing them with extensive data and ample documentation, but they refused to inform us what issues they perceived. They were required by law to adequately investigate and to have good faith discussions with us to better understand and to resolve any claims or concerns before going to litigation, but they failed to do so. Instead, they rushed to file an inaccurate complaint, as we will demonstrate in court. 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. While we find this behavior to be disgraceful and unprofessional, it is unfortunately an example of how they have conducted themselves throughout the course of their investigation. It is this type of irresponsible behavior from unaccountable State bureaucrats that are driving many of the State’s best businesses out of California.

"The picture the DFEH paints is not the Blizzard workplace of today. Over the past several years and continuing since the initial investigation started, we’ve made significant changes to address company culture and reflect more diversity within our leadership teams. We’ve amplified internal programs and channels for employees to report violations, including the “ASK List” with a confidential integrity hotline, and introduced an Employee Relations team dedicated to investigating employee concerns. We have strengthened our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and combined our Employee Networks at a global level, to provide additional support. Employees must also undergo regular anti-harassment training and have done so for many years.

"We put tremendous effort in creating fair and rewarding compensation packages and policies that reflect our culture and business, and we strive to pay all employees fairly for equal or substantially similar work. We take a variety of proactive steps to ensure that pay is driven by non-discriminatory factors. For example, 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.

"We are confident in our ability to demonstrate our practices as an equal opportunity employer that fosters a supportive, diverse, and inclusive workplace for our people, and we are committed to continuing this effort in the years to come. It is a shame that the DFEH did not want to engage with us on what they thought they were seeing in their investigation."

Since the publication of the lawsuit, several former Blizzard employees have taken to social media asserting their own allegations and claims of sexual harassment in the workplace that they've either witnessed or experienced.

The DFEH seeks an injunction forcing compliance with workplace protections. They're demanding a trial by jury, seeking damages, unpaid wages and more on behalf of the plaintiffs.

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