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Employees at Activision Blizzard walked off the job Wednesday to protest the company's response to an explosive lawsuit filed last week alleging pervasive discrimination and harassment against women.
The suit, filed against the company by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, largely focuses on the Blizzard division of the company and outlines a workplace where sexual harassment is rampant and often goes unpunished, and where women are paid less, denied promotions and retaliated against when they raise issues with managers.
The legal action is the result of more than two years of investigation into Activision Blizzard, according to the filing. It seeks damages, unpaid wages and back pay for all female employees of the company, among other penalties.
However, the walkout staged Wednesday at the company’s Irvine office — and virtually around the world — was inspired by Activision Blizzard's response to the lawsuit more than the lawsuit itself.
Immediately after the suit was filed, an Activision Blizzard spokesperson released a statement saying the lawsuit includes "distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard's past," accused the state of rushing to file a case and called the suit "irresponsible behavior from unaccountable State bureaucrats." Two days later, a companywide email from Activision Blizzard executive Frances Townsend repeated that message, writing that the lawsuit "presented a distorted and untrue picture of our company, including factually incorrect, old, and out of context stories."
All the while, current and former employees had been sharing their experiences of harassment and discrimination on social media.
Over the weekend, employees decided to respond. A group of workers drafted a letter to management calling the company's initial statement and Townsend's follow-up "abhorrent and insulting," writing that they "no longer trust that our leaders will place employee safety above their own interests." The letter called for official statements that recognize the severity of the allegations and demanded that Townsend step down from leadership of the company's women employee group.
By Tuesday, the letter had more than 3,100 signatures, more than 1,600 from current Blizzard employees, according to a Blizzard employee serving as spokesperson for the workers organizing the walkout who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation.
The call for a walkout included four demands: a change to hiring and promotion policies to increase the number of women at the company, the publication of compensation and promotion data for all employees, a third-party audit of the company's management and human resources department, and an end to mandatory arbitration clauses in all employee contracts, which the organizers write "protect abusers and limit the ability of victims to seek restitution."
Blizzard backed off its initial aggressive stance by Tuesday evening, when the company told employees they would get paid for the time they were off the job during the walkout. Chief Executive Bobby Kotick also issued a statement admitting the response was "tone deaf" and pledging "swift action," including a policy review by an outside law firm, the termination of managers who have suppressed harassment and discrimination claims, and changes to sexist content in the company's games.
In a statement, the employees organizing the walkout noted that Kotick did not address any of their four demands. "We will not return to silence," it read. "We will not be placated by the same processes that led us to this point."
At 10 a.m., a crowd of around 150 gathered outside the gates of the Blizzard campus in a large Irvine office park. Many wore Blizzard T-shirts and carried signs criticizing the company’s leadership. Some read “Lead responsibly” and “Every voice matters.”
Nearly two hours later, the crowd still held strong outside the gates of the Blizzard campus. Cars that honked their support driving past the group were met with cheers and applause. Across the street, former employees and Blizzard fans set up a stand providing water and snacks.
Blizzard employees, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, said they don’t anticipate the movement losing momentum until permanent changes are made. Some think the walkout will spark a #MeToo moment in gaming beyond Activision Blizzard.
And they said that the walkout is just the beginning of more action to come.
Activision Blizzard was created in 2008, when Santa Monica-based Activision merged with the parent company of Irvine-based Blizzard Entertainment, and is the largest game company in the Americas. The company has 9,500 employees worldwide, with Blizzard Entertainment making up nearly half of that head count. Successful titles such as "Call of Duty," "Warcraft," "Overwatch," "Hearthstone" and "Candy Crush" pushed the company's revenues above $8 billion in 2020.
The company's stock price did not substantially shift last week when the lawsuit was filed, but after the announcement of the walkout, share prices slid 6.7% on Tuesday.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.