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Activision Blizzard workers walk out after sexual harassment lawsuit

California sued the company, which makes popular titles including World of Warcraft and Call of Duty, alleging that the company has a "pervasive 'frat boy' culture."
Image: Activision Blizzard E3
Attendees walk past Activision Blizzard Inc. signage during the E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, on June 14, 2017.Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Employees at the video game company Activision Blizzard staged a walkout Wednesday to demand better working conditions for women and other marginalized groups after the state of California sued the company last week alleging widespread sexual harassment and discrimination

“We believe that our values as employees are not being accurately reflected in the words and actions of our leadership,” organizers said in a statement released Tuesday, referring to the company’s official response to the lawsuit, in which it denied the allegations. 

Employees began the event outside Blizzard’s main campus in Irvine, California, at 10 a.m. PT, with a virtual protest taking place on social media for those who can’t attend in person starting at 9 a.m. PT using the hashtag #ActiBlizzWalkout.

The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing last week sued Activision Blizzard, one of the largest video game companies in the world, which makes popular titles including World of Warcraft and Call of Duty, alleging that the company has a “pervasive ‘frat boy’ culture” in which female employees are sexually harassed and are paid and promoted less than their male counterparts. After the lawsuit was filed, several former employees shared further allegations of harassment and discrimination on social media, while dozens of current employees expressed their solidarity with the women whose allegations were featured in the lawsuit. 

“We know people across the company who have been complaining about these issues for decades or who have made allegations and have not been listened to,” said Valentine Powell, a software engineer who is one of more than 300 employees involved in organizing the protest. “The lawsuit and the company’s response to it was the match that lit the powder keg.”

Activision Blizzard did not respond to a request for comment about the walkout and the demands. It issued statements last week condemning sexual harassment in the workplace but downplaying the allegations in the lawsuit.

“We value diversity and strive to foster a workplace that offers inclusivity for everyone,” a spokesperson for Activision Blizzard said in a statement responding to the lawsuit. “There is no place in our company or industry, or any industry, for sexual misconduct or harassment of any kind.”

The company also said the lawsuit includes “distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard’s past.” 

Employees participating in the walkout took issue with the company’s statement.

“That’s patently untrue,” Powell said. “These things have been happening right up to the current day.”

The same employees who organized the walkout also drafted a letter condemning the company’s response to the lawsuit, which more than 3,100 current and former employees had signed by midday Tuesday. 

The walkout organizers have four demands for management: end mandatory arbitration clauses in employee contracts, as the organizers say they “protect abusers and limit the ability of victims to seek restitution”; adopt policies to improve diversity, equity and inclusion; publish compensation data, promotion rates and salary ranges for employees of all genders and ethnicities; and hire a third party to audit the company’s structure, human resources department and executives. 

“It is imperative to identify how current systems have failed to prevent employee harassment, and to propose new solutions to address these issues,” the organizers said in a statement. 

Powell said: “We crafted these demands as a first round. However, this is something that will take months if not years to work through. These are not easy fixes or sound bites but propositions that are meant to drastically improve our lives and work.”

Late Tuesday, after the announcement of Wednesday’s walkout, Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick emailed employees apologizing for the company’s early reaction to the lawsuit. 

“Our initial responses to the issues we face together, and to your concerns, were, quite frankly, tone deaf,” he said in the email, shared as a statement with NBC News. “It is imperative that we acknowledge all perspectives and experiences and respect the feelings of those who have been mistreated in any way. I am sorry that we did not provide the right empathy and understanding.”

Kotick said that he had asked the law firm WilmerHale to conduct a review of the company’s policies and procedures to “ensure that we have and maintain best practices to promote a respectful and inclusive workplace” and encouraged employees to report any workplace policy violations they had experienced. 

He said the company would investigate every allegation and terminate anyone found to have “impeded the integrity of our processes for evaluating claims and imposing appropriate consequences.” 

Some inappropriate in-game content would also be removed, he added. A spokesperson did not provide more details about the specific in-game content that would be removed.

“Your well-being remains my priority and I will spare no company resource ensuring that our company has the most welcoming, comfortable, and safe culture possible,” Kotick said.