Paradox accepts finding of independent audit, vows to 'leave no stone unturned'

Paradox Interactive HQ
(Image credit: Paradox Interactive (via Facebook))

In late 2021, reports emerged that painted a bleak picture of things at Paradox Interactive, most notably that a majority of the company's female employees reported 'mistreatment' of one kind or another in an internal survey. This was followed by additional interviews with former staff who basically said, 'Yep, this place has a problem'.

In response, Paradox commissioned Gender Balance, a Swedish firm specializing in issues of discrimination, harassment, and equality, to conduct an audit of the company. The various employee unions agreed with this choice. That report, written by Paul Bengtsson and Anneli Häyrén and titled 'Review of organisational capability to respond to discrimination, bullying and victimisation at Paradox Interactive', has now been published.

I'll go into more detail on the report below, but some of the main findings are:

  • Cases of particularly severe or overt harassment or sexual harassment reported to us have been fewer than expected for a company of Paradox’s size.
  • Cases of grey zone abusive behavior, which may defy clear legal definitions but nevertheless impacts the victim, is significantly more common. Women are significantly more likely to be targeted than men, but men also experience it.
  • Many employees and managers describe a sometimes harsh, competitive and excluding jargon in the workplace.
  • Gender, specifically the gender woman, is the most common ground of discrimination, both in the survey and in reported cases, although other grounds do occur.
  • Ethnicity came on second place both in cases and the survey, but on significantly lower levels than gender. It is not clear how many would be vulnerable to discrimination on this ground however, and so the number may be proportionally high.

While the audit "expected, and also found, low levels of physical harassment" there were "a smaller number of cases" characterized as "more severe." The firm said it was unable to describe the cases in the report due to their "sensitive nature" but noted that "severe instances of discrimination did not appear to be common."

In terms of what the report's authors call "grey zone abusive behavior," examples of this behaviour given by Paradox employees include "unsolicited compliments or comments about their appearance, having their competency questioned in a way that does not happen for male colleagues, or seeing the recurring use of gendered and negative stereotypes."

Several women reported "avoiding working with or minimizing their contact with certain persons, putting up a harsh facade, or having to advertise that they are in a relationship in order to not receive unwanted advances from male colleagues."

Paradox's HR department handled 16 cases from 2016 to September 2021, which the report's authors say suggests a situation where employees are not comfortable making complaints. 

"While it is impossible to say with any certainty what number of actual incidents could be reasonably expected, based on our data and the aforementioned research and proven experience, 16 cases appears very low, and strongly indicates a significant number of unrecorded incidents," the report says. "It is important to note we do not believe this is because HR knowingly and willingly suppresses case numbers. It should also be noted that from our experience, similar situations are likely to be found in many other Swedish companies."

According to the report, part of the problem is that Paradox doesn't have good routines for handling cases, managers are not trained in areas relating to misconduct that they should be, and there's inadequate communication of company policy. As a result, there is low employee confidence in the process and thus a low tendency to report.

"We conclude that the company has not been able to catch and manage the width of problematic behaviors, and as a result top management has lacked proper insight into issues of misconduct and how it is perceived by employees."

Former CEO Ebba Ljungerud talks to a Paradox employee.

(Image credit: Paradox Interactive)

The main theme from the employees who did complain, either to their manager or HR, is that most felt there was "a lack of discernible action and feedback or follow up," but there was also what seems like a more troubling element of reprisals:

"[Other employees] complain that they have been treated poorly or been labeled trouble makers for making complaints. It should be of special concern that a number of employees appear to have experienced repercussions to some degree. It should be noted that we have not conducted individual investigations in to and been able to corroborate claims of reprisals. It should also be noted that such claims are generally very difficult to investigate and corroborate, as reprisals tend not to be overt and a perpetrator is very unlikely to admit to it. The fact that several people have told us of experiences of this, and from different parts of the company, is however evidence enough to conclude that on the organisational level, reprisals or a perceived risk for reprisals is a real and recurring problem that needs to be forcefully addressed."

The Gender Balance audit calls for Paradox to implement many different measures, among which are an improved checklist for investigating incidents that "will be more thoroughly reviewed and revised to include protection against reprisals and guidelines for transparency." The company's Harassment and Victimization policy is to be revised to ensure protection against reprisals, a training programme is being put together to "provide foundational and practical knowledge about harassment and how it can be countered and prevented." Managerial processes and the support structure around harassment cases will be "reinforced."

Most significantly, in the short-term at least, Paradox has committed to a recurring standardised survey among staff (which Gender Balance expects to be annual) about misconduct and its prevalence. Gender Balance will also "as a temporary measure, remain an additional resource to use for employees who may have experienced discrimination or other misconduct." That will remain the case "while structural capital is built and Paradox’s internal capability is reinforced, after which Gender Balance are planned to go into a more advisory role."

Paradox Interactive logo

(Image credit: Paradox Interactive)

Paradox, for its part, has committed to the report's findings and indeed contacted PC Gamer to share its findings.

"We are now getting to the bottom of this and we are getting a concrete picture of the problem," says Mattias Lilja, Paradox's chief of staff. "The report is a first step for us to really address these issues and bridge the trust gap that exists. Everyone should feel safe at Paradox and thrive, that is our responsibility to ensure."  They added that Paradox has given Gender Balance the resources it needs to "leave no stone unturned."

Speaking specifically to the report's findings versus the original reporting around Paradox's internal issues, Lilja said: "Gender Balance expected a larger number of serious cases given Paradox's size but found fewer than expected. However, they found a more widespread behavior of the lower degree, such as master suppression techniques and inappropriate/nasty jargon. And it affects women to a greater degree than men, which is completely unacceptable. That is the starting point for our action plan."

As for the more severe cases of harassment: "Gender Balance and the company have deemed that termination of employment was not a legally permissible measure, and that the level of severity didn’t justify us turning to the police," says Lilja. "Therefore, no Paradox employee has been terminated due to that type of case, however other measures have come into play."

Paradox's press statement about the report says it expects the full action plan to be implemented before the end of the year, after which the situation will be regularly monitored by an anti-discrimination council consisting of staff, management, safety representatives, and unions.

One reason that these reports garnered such notice at the time is that, shortly after they appeared, Paradox CEO Fredrik Wester tweeted that he had exposed an employee to inappropriate behavior at a 2018 conference (without specifying what that behavior was). Wester apologised, and added, "I understand that this makes my cause less credible when it comes to handling these issues internally and will therefore not be involved directly with [the audit], it will be done by HR at Paradox with external help, but of course with my full support if needed."

Some might wonder how that went down at Paradox, and whether employees are happy with the CEO's admission and pledges. "Fredrik is an important part of our culture, that's quite clear," says Lilja. "He himself has gone out and said that what happened in 2018 has obviously affected the trust in him in these matters. Our hope is that what our employees think and feel about it has been taken into account in the autumn’s work. Personally my guess is that it is a factor [in under-reporting] just like Fredrik himself wrote. But it's important to remember that there are many of us here, myself included, and the senior management and all the managers who will have a responsibility to ensure that our employees have the welcoming and safe culture that they deserve."

Union representative Zack Holmgren said of the report, and Paradox's commitments: "We trust that the clear recognition of existing problems, the planned measures and the transparency of this process will lead to clear improvements in working conditions and culture at Paradox."

Rich Stanton

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."