Activision boss Bobby Kotick under fire after damning report into what he knew of workplace abuse

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UPDATE 8.11pm: Activision Blizzard’s board of directors has issued a statement in response to the Wall Street Journal’s report into the extent of CEO Bobby Kotick’s knowledge of allegations of sexual misconduct and mistreatment of female employees at the company, saying it “remains confident” in Kotick’s “leadership, commitment and ability”. Here’s the statement in full:

“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.”

ORIGINAL STORY 7.01 pm: A damning report by the Wall Street Journal claims Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick was aware of the allegations of sexual misconduct and mistreatment of female employees across many parts of the company “for years”, yet failed to tell the board of directors and executives everything he knew.

The Wall Street Journal report (paywalled) details a long list of incidents Kotick is said to have known about – sourced from people familiar with the matter as well as internal documents – prior to the revelations of July’s State of California lawsuit, which called Activision “a breeding ground for harassment and discrimination against women”.

It’s claimed, for instance, Kotick was directly informed of allegations made by a Sledgehammer Games employee that a male supervisor had raped her in 2016 and 2017 after she was pressured into consuming too much alcohol in the office and at work events.

A lawyer for the woman allegedly wrote to Kotick threatening Activision with legal action, revealing their client had reported the incident to the company’s HR department and other supervisors but “nothing happened”. Activision is said to have reached an out-of-court settlement with the woman within months, but Kotick failed to inform the company’s board of directors about either the alleged rapes or the settlement.

The same email to Kotick reportedly highlighted another incident in which a second Sledgehammer employee, Eduard Roehrich, had been accused of sexual harassment after a night of drinking in 2017. Speaking to the WSJ, Roehrich said the results of an internal investigation by Activision after the event resulted in two weeks of paid leave and the opportunity to remain at the company in a different position. Roehrich claims Activision HR requested he “keep this matter confidential” at the time.

Kotick is also said to have been aware of allegations aimed at Dan Bunting, co-head of Activision’s Call of Duty studio Treyarch, in which a female employee accused Bunting of sexually harassing her after a night of drinking in 2017. An internal investigation in 2019 reportedly recommended Bunting was fired, but Kotick intervened to keep him. According to the WSJ, Bunting left Activision after being approached by the publication for comment.

Kotick is also said to have approved the 2018 firing of former Blizzard technology chief Ben Kilgore, who faced multiple allegations of sexual harassment by female employees over several years. At the time, former head of Blizzard Michael Morhaime reportedly emailed employees thanking Kilgore “for his many contributions over the last four and a half years”.

This incident was referenced in a 2020 email to Activision leaders, which Kotick is said to have been aware of, from 30 female employees at the company’s esports division. The employees wrote that they had been subjected to “unwanted touching, demeaning comments, exclusion from important meetings, and unsolicited comments on their appearance” at Activision, and commented on the Kilgore incident directly, highlighting “the feeling of defeat when an abuser exits the company with positive, public farewells.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, when directors questioned Kotick about what he knew and why they hadn’t been better informed following the public disclosure of a years long investigation into Activision by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alongside the state of California’s lawsuit, the CEO insisted cultural issues were centred at Blizzard Entertainment and had been “resolved years earlier”.

The WSJ report also addresses Activision’s controversial response to the news of Califorinia’s lawsuit, in which executive Fran Townsend wrote to employees calling the legal action “truly meritless and irresponsible” and a “distorted and untrue picture of our company, including factually incorrect, old, and out of context stories – some from more than a decade ago”.

The response was immediately condemned as insensitive by current and former Activision employees, and Kotick would later, after a lengthy period of silence, call the email “tone deaf”. According to the WSJ, however, that email was, in fact, drafted by Kotick himself, who then directed Townsend – one of the few female executives in the company – to send it out to staff.

Activision has once again adopted the same defensive tone in an official response to today’s WSJ report, calling the article “a misleading view of Activision Blizzard and our CEO” in a statement provided to Eurogamer. Notably, an earlier version of the statement sent to US journalists called the report “inaccurate and misleading”, but this has since been changed.

“Instances of sexual misconduct that were brought to [Bobby Kotick’s] attention were acted upon,” the statement continues. “The WSJ ignores important changes underway to make this the industry’s most welcoming and inclusive workplace and it fails to account for the efforts of the thousands of employees who work hard every day to live up to their – and our – values. The constant desire to be better has always set this company apart. Which is why, at Mr. Kotick’s direction, we have made significant improvements, including a zero-tolerance policy for inappropriate conduct.

“And it is why we are moving forward with unwavering focus, speed, and resources to continue increasing diversity across our company and industry and to ensure that every employee comes to work feeling valued, safe, respected, and inspired. We will not stop until we have the best workplace for our team”.

The full report is a lengthy, troubling read, shedding fresh light on the turmoil within Activision. It claims, for instance, that Jennifer Oneal – who recently stepped down as co-head of Blizzard after only three months in the role – had contacted Activision’s legal team to discuss her resignation after only a month, writing, “I have been tokenised, marginalised, and discriminated against”. In the email, Oneal is said to have highlighted her own experiences of sexual harassment at Activision earlier in her career, as well as noting she was paid less than fellow co-head Mike Ybarra. Oneal reportedly expressed a lack of faith in the abilities of Activision’s leadership to improve the company’s culture, saying “it was clear that the company would never prioritise our people the right way”.

Following the Wall Street Journal’s report, Kotick’s behaviour has been condemned by Activision employees. The ABK Workers Alliance, which has been campaigning for fairer working conditions at the company following the State of California’s lawsuit, wrote on Twitter, “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.”

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