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Activision Sued for Hostile Work Environment

In July 2021, video game maker Blizzard Entertainment was sued together with Activision Blizzard, its owner, by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing for allegedly creating a hostile work environment involving gender discrimination and continuous sexual harassment. Once the lawsuit was announced, many women came forward to confirm the allegations. People in California and across the U.S. are protected against unlawful gender discrimination and sexual harassment by both state and federal laws. The lawsuit follows a three-year investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and shows that workplace sexual harassment and gender discrimination continue to be pervasive issues.

Allegations in the Lawsuit

The lawsuit was filed in the Los Angeles Superior Court and made multiple allegations against Activision and its executives. Female employees likened working for Activision to working in a fraternity house. They claimed that male employees were allowed to drink on the job and sexually harass female employees without repercussion. Men would openly talk about their sexual encounters, women's bodies, and joke about sexual assault and rape.

Female employees reported that they were constantly subjected to sexual advances, sexual comments, unwanted touching, groping, and more. Women who worked on the World of Warcraft team reported that they were subjected to unwanted sexual advances by both co-workers and supervisors and that they were constantly demeaned. Even though the supervisors knew about these types of behaviors, they did nothing to stop them and instead encouraged the conduct to continue.

The lawsuit also alleged that J. Allen Brack, the president of Activision Blizzard, both knew about and enabled gender discrimination and sexual harassment to continue. Alex Afrasiabi, the senior creative director of the World of Warcraft team, was also named in the lawsuit. He reportedly allowed male employees to engage in obvious and open sexual harassment without doing anything to discipline them. Afrasiabi also allegedly made unwelcome sexual advances to female employees and would attempt to kiss or hug them. Because his conduct was so well-known, employees on the World of Warcraft team renamed his office the "Cosby suite" after Bill Cosby. One employee who was targeted by extreme acts of sexual harassment reportedly committed suicide.

In addition to the widespread sexual harassment within the company, the DFEH also alleged multiple acts of discrimination. A manager reportedly stated that he could not risk giving a promotion to a female employee because she might become pregnant and choose to stay home with her child. Supervisors and managers also reportedly engaged in pay discrimination between male and female employees and retaliated against employees who filed complaints with the human resources department. HR staff members were reportedly close to the employees who allegedly harassed others.

Activision's Statement About the Allegations in the Lawsuit

Activision Blizzard issued a statement about the lawsuit shortly after it was filed. The company characterized the lawsuit as irresponsible and said it should not have been filed. It claimed that the company values diversity and works to have an inclusive workplace. It also denied that it takes sexual harassment and discrimination complaints seriously and fully investigates them. The company claimed that it disciplines employees who are found to have engaged in discriminatory and harassing conduct in the workplace.

Blizzard also claimed that it had fully cooperated with the DFEH and the EEOC during the investigation but was not informed about any issues the agencies saw. The company called the DFEH's conduct reprehensible and claimed that it would prove that the allegations were unfounded in court.

Settlement with the EEOC Announced

Despite Activision Blizzard's initial protestations when the DFEH lawsuit was filed in July, the company announced that it had reached a settlement with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Sept. 27. The EEOC had filed a lawsuit against Activision Blizzard earlier in the day. In its complaint, the agency stated that it had informed Activision Blizzard of its findings on June 15, 2021. As a part of the settlement, Activision Blizzard has agreed to pay $18 million to create a fund for employees who pursue discrimination and harassment claims against it. The settlement must still be approved by the court. Any money that might remain in the restitution fund will either be used to implement new programs for diversity and inclusion within the company or be donated to charities dedicated to preventing sexual harassment. Activision Blizzard stated that it is dedicated to eliminating discrimination and harassment following the settlement announcement.

What These Lawsuits Demonstrate

Both the lawsuits filed by the California DFEH and the EEOC demonstrate how pervasive workplace sexual harassment and discrimination can be in some workplaces in the state. Both federal and state laws prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of gender. Sexual harassment is considered a type of unlawful sex discrimination when it is pervasive enough to create a hostile working environment.

The conduct described in the DFEH's complaint appears to have been continuous, severe, and ongoing. This type of environment would likely make it difficult for the victims to be able to perform the tasks of their jobs. The lawsuit also alleged retaliation against employees who filed complaints. People who are retaliated against for filing complaints about discrimination or harassment can also file separate complaints of retaliation.

If approved by the court, the settlement with the EEOC will result in the establishment of an $18 million fund for the victims of discrimination and harassment at Activision Blizzard. Affected employees will be able to file claims for restitution from the fund for the losses they have suffered because of the discrimination and harassment they have suffered.

How Should People Handle Workplace Sex Discrimination or Harassment?

When people are subjected to discrimination or harassment at work based on their gender, they should review their company's policies to determine how to file internal complaints. Most cases are not as egregious as what is described as occurring at Activision Blizzard, but some are. In cases involving single incidents of inappropriate jokes or conduct, a worker might be able to tell the other person to stop the inappropriate behavior. However, in other cases, it might be necessary to file an internal complaint with human resources.

Any complaint filed with a supervisor or an HR professional should be in writing, and the employee making the complaint should retain a copy. The company should then initiate an investigation into what occurred. If it finds that sexual harassment or discrimination occurred, it should appropriately discipline the perpetrator regardless of the position that he or she holds. It is illegal for a company to retaliate against an employee for complaining about sexual harassment or discrimination even if the company finds that the incident did not qualify as illegal discrimination or harassment.

If the company fails to take appropriate action after a discrimination or harassment complaint is filed, the worker can then file a discrimination and harassment charge with the DFEH and the EEOC. To qualify as illegal sexual harassment, the conduct must have either been severe or pervasive and ongoing enough to create a hostile work environment. Sexual harassment charges can also be filed when a supervisor has engaged in quid pro quo harassment in which he or she promises benefits or threatens adverse job actions conditioned on an employee's agreeing to engage in sexual conduct.

Retaliation complaints can be filed even if the underlying discrimination is not found to be supported. Once the EEOC or DFEH receives a complaint, it will investigate it. If it finds that discrimination or harassment occurred, it will either file a lawsuit on behalf of the employee or provide him or her with a notice of his or her right to sue. The EEOC generally only chooses to pursue egregious cases like Activision's while allowing other people to pursue claims on their own.

Once a person receives a right to sue letter, he or she can then file a discrimination and harassment complaint in the appropriate court. Retaliation complaints can also be filed in court. By filing lawsuits, people might recover back pay, front pay, reinstatement, general damages, and attorney's fees and costs.

Consult With an Experienced Discrimination and Harassment Attorney

People should have the right to work in environments that are free from illegal harassment and discrimination. Unfortunately, however, many companies allow the types of unlawful conduct described in the Activision lawsuits to flourish. People who are the victims of harassment and discrimination at work based on their protected characteristics should consult with an experienced discrimination and harassment lawyer at the law firm of Steven M. Sweat, APC. Call us to schedule a free and confidential consultation at 866-966-5240 to learn more about your rights.

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