The Water Cooler Revolution

When Activision Blizzard – the company behind Call of Duty and World of Warcraft, two of the biggest game franchises ever – was sued last week by California State for breaking workplace protection laws, it went on the attack.

It accused California’s action as “disgraceful and unprofessional” and labelled the state’s legislature “unaccountable state bureaucrats”.

The accusations against Activision Blizzard – a Fortune 500 company – were not inconsequential: male staff were accused of drunken harassment of female employees; there was a culture of ignoring complaints and retaliation against women who made them; and widespread discrimination against women in areas such as equal pay and promotion opportunity.

One woman, the allegation claimed, committed suicide because of the treatment she received.

While the gaming company felt justified in going on the attack, in little over a week they have made a complete volte-face – but only after 2,000 of their 9,500 workforce signed a petition calling the company’s response to the lawsuit “abhorrent and insulting”.

And then the workforce backed their petition up by organising a walk out. And then the shares dropped almost 10 per cent in trading.

It was only then that the chief executive Bobby Katick began dialling back the company’s original aggressive response. “Our initial responses to the issues we face together, and to your concerns, were, quite frankly, tone deaf,” the CEO said in an open letter to company staff. “I am sorry that we did not provide the right empathy and understanding.”

As the fallout continued the company continued to reverse ferret: it has promised a leadership review and to sack any management found to have been involved in toxic behaviour. 

While the pressure on the share price may have been a factor, it is the power exerted by a workforce to stand up for themselves that has made such a difference so quickly here. And the staff’s bravery in standing up for themselves has had a snowball effect: 500 staff at rival Ubisoft have banded together to sign an open letter in solidarity and to call out their management.

Last summer, Ubisoft – the Paris-listed software company – was hit by a number of allegations of sexual misconduct by senior executives. In their open letter to the CEO Yves Guillemot they say that “it should no longer be a surprise to anyone” that these “heinous acts are going on”. 

“It is time to stop being shocked. Those responsible must be held accountable for their actions.”

At the time, when individuals at Ubisoft made their accusations, mostly on Twitter, little was done. It appears that the very act of staff coming together to go public is more likely to shine a light on the lack of diversity, equality and inclusiveness in some of these companies.  

While the wrongdoing is often permeated in the ranks, it is the attitude of the people at the top – or the simple act of turning a blind eye – that creates the toxic culture. 

At BrewDog, for example, hundreds of former staff were very clear that the alleged toxic culture of bullying and harassment prevalent at the brewer was as a direct result of the actions of James Watt and Martin Dickie, the company’s founders.

“You spent years claiming you wanted to be the best employer in the world, presumably to help you to recruit top talent, but ask former staff what they think of those claims, and you’ll most likely be laughed at,” the letter from former BrewDog staff claimed in June. “Being treated like a human being was sadly not always a given for those working at BrewDog.”

Companies take their lead from the top – and so those leading need to step up. Or get out of the way of the change that is coming, whether they like it or not.

Another reason why an open letter is so effective is because it’s there forever – even the search engine’s can’t hide it from those searching. 

The letter of more than 2,000 staff at Google’s holding company, Alphabet, is still easily found by a simple Google search. Their open letter pleaded with the tech giant to stop protecting workers accused of sexual harassment. For the same reason, 20,000 walked out last year – though a lot of people have already forgotten that.

“This is a long pattern where Alphabet protects the harasser instead of protecting the person harmed by the harassment,” the letter said. “The person who reports harassment is forced to bear the burden, usually leaving Alphabet while their harasser stays or is rewarded for their behavior (sic).”

Employees taking a stance against toxic leadership behaviours is welcomed by us at WeQual. Our mission is to build a better business world, with more diverse and equitable companies. We know that the only way we will see change we all desire is if the companies themselves want it.

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