A new report in the Wall Street Journal describes further incidents of harassment and sexual harassment at Activision-Blizzard, some dating back to 2006. The report, which Activision characterized as “inaccurate” in its own statement today, describes Jen Oneal’s brief reign as Blizzard’s co-leader and why she left, and also includes allegations about CEO Bobby Kotick’s own behavior and how the company’s management has historically responded to such issues.
Jen Oneal var promoted to co-head of Blizzard in August 2021, making her the first woman to head one of Activision’s business units. This was widely seen as a positive step for Blizzard in the midst of these grim allegations and ugliness. A few months later, Oneal has come out as someone who has experienced this harassment himself, and announced his intention to leave: It is simply dizzying.
In September 2021, Oneal sent an email to an Activision attorney announcing that she intended to resign, saying “it was clear that the company would never prioritize our people in the right way,” claiming, that she had been sexually harassed earlier in her career at Activision, and that she was paid less than her male co-boss Mike Ybarra. “I have been tokenized, marginalized and discriminated against,” Oneal wrote.
It was announced on November 2nd that Oneal leaves Blizzard at the end of the year.
The main charges against Kotick are that in 2006 he left a threatening voicemail on an assistant’s phone, in which he threatened to have her killed. The assistant complained and Kotick settled the case out of court. Activision spokeswoman Helaine Klasky told the WSJ: “Mr Kotick quickly apologized 16 years ago for the blatantly hyperbolic and inappropriate voicemail, and he deeply regrets the exaggeration and tone of his voicemail to this day.”
Another allegation is that Kotick personally intervened in the case of Dan Bunting, then co-responsible for Activision’s Treyarch study, an important part of the Call of Duty series. Bunting was charged by a female employee of sexual harassment in 2017 after a night of drinking. Activision launched an internal investigation in 2019 when this was reported and recommended that Bunting be fired, but Kotick intervened to keep him. Bunting was instead given advice and was allowed to stay with Activision. But after the WSJ began inquiring about this incident, Bunting has now left Activision.
The report continues with detailed allegations of rape against Javier Panameno, a supervisor for Sledgehammer Games. The prosecutor’s attorney claimed he had also sexually harassed another woman in the studio. The employee who accused him of the assaults reported the incident in 2017 to police: No charges were filed. The assaults were reported to Activision in 2018, and Panemeno was fired two months later.
Prosecutor’s attorney added that while her client had not reported the incidents to Activision prior to departure in November 2017, she had reported them to Sledgehammer’s HR department while she was at the company.
The report also claims that former Blizzard chief technology officer Ben Kilgore faced several allegations of sexual harassment over several years and lied in an internal investigation into a relationship with a lower-level employee. Kilgore was fired in 2018 with Kotick’s approval.
Kotick has been sued by the Securities and Exchange Commission for an investigation into how the company handled fraud and revealed it (thus, it is very important what Kotick knew and when and what he told others, such as the board).
According to the WSJ: “The board was dazzled by the California lawsuit allegations, including that an Activision employee killed herself after a picture of her vagina was allegedly circulated at a company party, according to people familiar with the board.”
Activision’s board said in a statement that it had been “informed of the status of regulatory issues at all times.”
At the time, an email was circulating about Activision-Blizzard employees by Frances Townsend, one of the company’s female executives. Townsend would take a huge amount of blemish for this email, and Kotick withdrew the statement and called it quits “tone deaf.”
Bobby Kotick drafted this statement and asked Townsend to send it. Townsend had to apologize to a corporate women’s group she led, and was asked to resign, which she did. “Ms. Townsend should not be blamed for this mistake,” Activision spokeswoman Helaine Klasky said.
These new revelations must be seen in the broader context of the charges against Activision-Blizzard and various ongoing lawsuits. The company is in court against the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which faces claims that it routinely ignored complaints from female employees about harassment, sexual harassment and discrimination. The WSJ claims that since this action was launched in July, Activision has received more than 500 HR complaints from current and former employees alleging “harassment, sexual assault, bullying, pay gaps and other issues.”
Shortly after the WSJ article went live, Activision-Blizzard released a statement that had previously been circulated among employees. In it, Kotick writes:
“There is an article today that paints an inaccurate and misleading view of our business, of me personally and my leadership.
“I want to say two important things about this: First, we are incredibly lucky to have the most talented people in our industry who are all so committed to continuous improvement. And I share that commitment. The second thing I want to say is “Anyone who doubts my belief in being the most accommodating, inclusive workplace does not really understand how important this is to me.”
If you thought Bobby Kotick’s 2020 income of $ 155 million was huge, you should see what he would earn if Activision replaced him. (see highlight) pic.twitter.com/CWixrPr8TAJune 23, 2021
Kotick’s statement goes on to say that Activision-Blizzard “is moving forward with a new zero-tolerance policy for inappropriate behavior – and zero means zero. Any reprehensible behavior is simply unacceptable. Over the last few years, our industry has had an unpleasant spotlight, “There have been opportunities for us to change. And we must all, including me, embrace this need for change so that we can bring our very best selves to the very best place to work.”
Activision-Blizzard’s own, separate response to the story reiterated: “We are disappointed with the Wall Street Journal’s report, which presents a misleading view of Activision Blizzard and our CEO. Incidents of sexual misconduct that were made public were dealt with.”
The studio remains locked in several court battles with allegations of harassment dating back years. Kotick has always been a part of this story, insofar as it is about an institutional problem in the company he has more or less built into an institution, but until this time he has been in the typical CEO position of broadcasting declarations and laws changes. This report questions his behavior and decision-making and does so in the context of serious harassment allegations and whether senior executives have ever been given preferential treatment.
Activision-Blizzard continues to dispute these allegations on several fronts, but its own board will now ask the obvious question: Kotick built Activision into what it is, but is he the man who can turn the page on this chapter in its history? We can get answers to that faster than you think.