Many workplaces have fully re-opened in the last few months and employees are being required to return to the office, at least on a part-time basis. With so many people back in the office after a two-year hiatus and interacting in-person with supervisors and co-workers on a daily basis, there are going to be challenges around both creating a positive and cohesive work environment and effectively preventing harassment and other offensive conduct.
Take the recent case of Activision Blizzard (which is in the process of being acquired by Microsoft). Throughout 2021 and into 2022, the video gaming giant has been hit with a number of private lawsuits and agency investigations initiated by both the EEOC and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing around its allegedly toxic workplace environment and “frat boy culture.” Allegations by female employees against the company include constant sexual harassment, including groping, comments, and advances as well as lack of career advancement. The culture complaints also extend to specific allegations against HR. In addition to high turnover, HR has been highly criticized as being close to the alleged harassers and little more than an appendage of its compromised leadership, with no ability to create meaningful change.
Faced with these systemic allegations, Activision Blizzard has been forced to take broad, immediate and impactful action. In October 2021, Activision Blizzard issued a public letter announcing its efforts to foster a “company culture where all feel safe and heard.” The letter included a three-prong commitment to take action to discipline offenders, to be transparent in investigations, and to invest resources and people into ethics, culture and training. The letter also announced the exit of more than 20 individuals and disciplinary action issued to 20 more in conjunction with the toxic workplace allegations. Then, at the end of March 2022, the Company received court approval of an $18 million dollar settlement with the EEOC resolving allegations of sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, and related retaliation. Finally, public commentary from Microsoft indicates that there is likely to be a sweeping and substantial change in leadership at all levels following the finalization of the buyout amid the serious allegations of a toxic workplace culture.
The Bottom Line for Employers
Do not be the next Activision Blizzard. Re-opening the office is not going to be easy and there are going to be challenges ahead. If your company has not conducted anti-harassment training during the pandemic years, it is likely time to consider putting this on the agenda. Companies should also consider whether they are adequately staffed in terms of people and resources to address and investigate harassment and workplace culture issues if they arise. As the Activision Blizzard example demonstrates, the failure to swiftly, thoughtfully, and meaningfully investigate and address workplace culture issues can lead to a spiral of litigation, investigations, and unwanted publicity.