Activision Blizzard employees skeptical that executive who denied sexism problems can solve them

Protest at Activision Blizzard
Activision Blizzard employees protest on July 28. (Image credit: Bloomberg / Getty Images)

Back in July, Activision Blizzard executive Fran Townsend told employees that California's sexism and harassment lawsuit presented a "distorted and untrue" picture of the company, a denial that didn't go over well: Her comments were part of the reason for an organized employee walkout on July 28. This week, Townsend took a more conciliatory approach in an email that one Activision Blizzard employee described to PC Gamer as "the first email from her that hasn't been overtly offensive." 

That doesn't mean things have been smoothed over. "The fact that she's still in charge of overseeing improvements in this area makes me have very little belief in whatever she wants to tell us," said the same employee. Two other Activision Blizzard employees who spoke to PC Gamer also called out the discrepancy between Townsend's latest email and her previous denials. 

The email, which Activision Blizzard published online this week, outlines the company's plan to respond more decisively to HR reports, grow its investigation team, and increase transparency. According to Townsend, over 20 people have "exited" the company due to employee reports in recent months, and over 20 others have received some other disciplinary action.

This [Financial Times] interview from Frances behind a paywall just screams shareholder appeasement and nothing more.

Jessica Gonzalez

Whether or not decisive action is welcome, several employees say they can't take the progress report seriously given that Activision Blizzard has so far dodged the demands made by the employees who walked out in July, who have organized under the "ABetterABK" banner. ("ABK" refers to Activision Blizzard and subsidiary King.)

First among those demands is an end to mandatory arbitration, an employment contract clause that says that legal disputes between Activision Blizzard and employees have to be settled out of court. The group also wants new hiring policies, pay transparency, and a third-party audit of the company's structure and executive staff. 

"I am still waiting," said an employee about Townsend's email, referencing the ABetterABK demands.

According to the Financial Times, Townsend has acknowledged that not all employee demands have been met, but says that Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick has given her a "blank check" to put toward further changes.

"While it's nice to see harassers leave the company, a lot of things are still left unaddressed," said Blizzard senior test analyst Jessica Gonzalez in a message to PC Gamer. "This [Financial Times] interview from Frances behind a paywall just screams shareholder appeasement and nothing more."

On her Twitter account, Gonzalez has been publicly critical of Activision Blizzard corporate leadership, and especially Townsend, whose former job as homeland security advisor to President George W Bush has made her especially unpopular among progressive employees. (Townsend's past comments on the legality and effectiveness torture are frequently cited as conclusive marks against her credibility.)

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While there's still distrust of the executives, the mood within individual Activision Blizzard teams isn't necessarily dour. The same employee who said they have "very little belief" in Townsend also told PC Gamer that they have "tremendous" faith in their team's direct leadership, and that they've heard the same from people on other teams. 

A different Activision Blizzard employee who spoke to PC Gamer also stated that their team has a positive mood and is "invested in improving things." That employee does think that the new execs seem "genuinely focused on improving a culture that has been toxic for several decades," but said that they've come off as "defensive" and "uninterested in how employees feel." Company leadership has also failed to increase trust in the HR department, the employee said.

The July lawsuit alleged that Activision Blizzard's HR department failed to act on reports and didn't always keep them confidential, and that reports could lead to retaliation. In September, Activision Blizzard hired a former Disney executive to replace its head of HR, and according to Townsend's email, the number of HR reports has increased recently, with concerns that range "from years ago to the present."

An employee said they were worried that Activision is waiting out organizing momentum.

"We continue to look into any issues or reports raised through the many channels that are available," Townsend wrote. "But it bears repeating: Reports can be submitted anonymously, and there is zero tolerance for retaliation of any kind."

Townsend also said that three new roles were recently added to the company's ethics and compliance team, and 19 new ethics and compliance roles will be added in the future. Activision Blizzard also plans to triple its spending on training for everyone at the company, including executives.

Gonzalez and other Activision Blizzard employees continue to publicly criticize the company on Twitter, although one source told PC Gamer that the grassroots push for change seems to have slowed internally. Employees still have the "desire and passion," they said, but they've noticed fewer conversations about the company's corporate leaders in work chat, and fewer blue heart emojis next to names, a symbol of solidarity. Another employee said that they're worried that Activision is waiting out organizing momentum, and will try to claim success with emails like Townsend's without addressing their demands or truly changing the company. In September, a source told PC Gamer that employee attrition was hindering ABetterABK's organizing efforts.

ABetterABK remains in the public eye: On Twitter, the group continues to push Activision Blizzard to respond to its demands, and recently published its first newsletter. While Activision Blizzard employee organizers haven't announced an intention to formally unionize, they have been receiving assistance from the Communications Workers of America, a large trade union. 

Recently, Activision Blizzard requested that the California lawsuit be paused while it gathers evidence regarding an allegation that the state agency behind the lawsuit violated professional conduct rules. That allegation came from a federal agency which recently proposed an $18 million settlement with Activision Blizzard over the same discrimination claims. The SEC is also investigating the company.

Tyler Wilde
Executive Editor

Tyler grew up in Silicon Valley during the '80s and '90s, playing games like Zork and Arkanoid on early PCs. He was later captivated by Myst, SimCity, Civilization, Command & Conquer, all the shooters they call "boomer shooters" now, and PS1 classic Bushido Blade (that's right: he had Bleem!). Tyler joined PC Gamer in 2011, and today he's focused on the site's news coverage. His hobbies include amateur boxing and adding to his 1,200-plus hours in Rocket League.