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Activision Blizzard CEO apologizes to employees for ‘tone deaf’ response to harassment suit

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Bobby Kotick promised company-wide changes in his letter

Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick stands in front of artwork from the Skylanders series Photo: Corbis via Getty Images

Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick released a letter to employees on Tuesday, apologizing for the company’s response to a lawsuit that alleged numerous instances of gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment, and other employee-related issues at the game publisher.

“Our initial responses to the issues we face together, and to your concerns, were, quite frankly, tone deaf,” Kotick said in the letter. “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 promised “swift action” and “long-lasting change” at Activision Blizzard, starting with a review of the company’s policies and procedures by an outside firm, and to “promote a respectful and inclusive workplace.”

Those changes will come from within the company and within the company’s games, Kotick said. He promised changes to hiring practices, a review of managers, and changes to “inappropriate” in-game content. On Tuesday, the World of Warcraft development team pledged to remove such content from the MMO. That may include characters and items within World of Warcraft that are named after Alex Afrasiabi, who worked on the game at Blizzard from 2004 to 2020 and is named as a serial harasser in the lawsuit filed last week by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

California regulators sued Activision Blizzard, which also owns mobile game company King and Major League Gaming, after a two-year investigation into the company. The lawsuit alleges that Activision Blizzard enabled a “frat boy” workplace culture that subjects its female employees to gender-based discrimination and “constant sexual harassment.” Top executives, including Blizzard president J. Allen Brack, are named in the lawsuit for knowing about and enabling this behavior.

In its original response to the lawsuit, Activision Blizzard said that the DFEH lawsuit contained “distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard’s past.” And in an email to employees, Activision Blizzard executive vice president for corporate affairs Fran Townsend appeared to downplay the lawsuit’s allegations, saying, “A recently filed lawsuit presented a distorted and untrue picture of our company, including factually inaccurate, old, and out of context stories - some from more than a decade ago.”

Allegations documented in the lawsuit are widespread: The investigation found that women account for only 20% of Activision Blizzard’s employees, noting that “very few women ever reach top roles at the company.” Those that do, the DFEH said, earn less money than their male colleagues — something that allegedly trickles down through all positions at the company. In other instances, the lawsuit describes managers refusing to promote women.

The lawsuit opened the floodgates on social media, where current and former Activision Blizzard employees told stories of harassment, discrimination, and other inappropriate behaviors at the company.

Multiple ex-Blizzard employees, including former executives such as senior vice president Chris Metzen and president and co-founder Mike Morhaime, have spoken out over the past week about the allegations made in the lawsuit. In statements published on social media — statements with a tone that’s markedly different from that of Activision Blizzard’s official comments — Metzen and Morhaime apologized for their roles in creating the company’s so-called “frat boy” culture.

Activision Blizzard employees plan an organized walkout from work on Wednesday.

Kotick’s letter to Activision Blizzard employees can be read in full below.

This has been a difficult and upsetting week.

I want to recognize and thank all those who have come forward in the past and in recent days. I so appreciate your courage. Every voice matters - and we will do a better job of listening now, and in the future.

Our initial responses to the issues we face together, and to your concerns, were, quite frankly, tone deaf.

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.

Many of you have told us that active outreach comes from caring so deeply for the Company. That so many people have reached out and shared thoughts, suggestions, and highlighted opportunities for improvement is a powerful reflection of how you care for our communities of colleagues and players – and for each other. Ensuring that we have a safe and welcoming work environment is my highest priority. The leadership team has heard you loud and clear.

We are taking swift action to be the compassionate, caring company you came to work for and to ensure a safe environment. There is no place anywhere at our Company for discrimination, harassment, or unequal treatment of any kind.

We will do everything possible to make sure that together, we improve and build the kind of inclusive workplace that is essential to foster creativity and inspiration.

I have asked the law firm WilmerHale to conduct a review of our policies and procedures to ensure that we have and maintain best practices to promote a respectful and inclusive workplace. This work will begin immediately. The WilmerHale team will be led by Stephanie Avakian, who is a member of the management team at WilmerHale and was most recently the Director of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission’s Division of Enforcement.

We encourage anyone with an experience you believe violates our policies or in any way made you uncomfortable in the workplace to use any of our many existing channels for reporting or to reach out to Stephanie. She and her team at WilmerHale will be available to speak with you on a confidential basis and can be reached at ATVI@wilmerhale.com or 202-247-2725. Your outreach will be kept confidential. Of course, NO retaliation will be tolerated.

We are committed to long-lasting change. Effective immediately, we will be taking the following actions:

Employee Support. We will continue to investigate each and every claim and will not hesitate to take decisive action. To strengthen our capabilities in this area we are adding additional senior staff and other resources to both the Compliance team and the Employee Relations team.

Listening Sessions. We know many of you have inspired ideas on how to improve our culture. We will be creating safe spaces, moderated by third parties, for you to speak out and share areas for improvement.

Personnel Changes. We are immediately evaluating managers and leaders across the Company. Anyone found to have impeded the integrity of our processes for evaluating claims and imposing appropriate consequences will be terminated.

Hiring Practices. Earlier this year I sent an email requiring all hiring managers to ensure they have diverse candidate slates for all open positions. We will be adding compliance resources to ensure that our hiring managers are in fact adhering to this directive.

In-game Changes. We have heard the input from employee and player communities that some of our in-game content is inappropriate. We are removing that content.

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.

You have my unwavering commitment that we will improve our company together, and we will be the most inspiring, inclusive entertainment company in the world.

Yours sincerely,

Bobby