More than a dozen current and former Ubsioft employees have come forward, complaining that the game producer has downplayed and ignored their claims of sexual harassment against top management for years. The French-based family business, run by 5 brothers, has employees all over the world, but as their workers have spoken up, saying “Me Too”, some of Ubisoft’s leadership is finally being held accountable for their actions.
If you or your children play video games, you probably have seen the work of gaming giant Ubisoft. With titles like Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, Ubisoft is one the world’s largest game publishers. The gaming industry has been plagued with misogyny and sexism for years. Women software developers are routinely under-represented and underpaid compared to their male counterparts. But while employees at tech giants like Amazon and Google have made headlines, more specialized studios have flown under the radar of mainstream news until recently.
Earlier this year, Bloomberg Businessweek published a report, pulling back the curtain on sexual misconduct investigations at Ubisoft Entertainment SA. The report detailed over a dozen female employees who had raised concerns about toxic work environments within Ubisoft’s offices in Canada, France, and here in the U.S. Ellen Lee, who worked in Ubisoft’s San Francisco office in the marketing and promotions department, told Bloomberg:
“The culture there is really hard as a woman. . . . If you weren’t part of the boys’ club, you were just working hard on the outskirts.”
The sexual misconduct complaints ranged from work outings held at strip clubs to one incident where a creative chief choked an employee at a release party. Employees have complained for years, but the company has done little to address their complaints. Fey Vercuiel, a former designer for the company said:
“You complain about something, it just gets swept under the rug.”
When Nina Stewart raised concerns that her manager was making sexist and fatphobic remarks, she was told to “talk it out” with him. Ubisoft did nothing until a male co-worker corroborated her third complaint. Then the company removed her boss and sent her a thank you card with a $200 gift card.
Here in the U.S., employers are legally required to investigate claims of sexual misconduct, harassment, and gender discrimination. When they find the complaints are true, federal and state laws require employers to take reasonable steps to correct the problem -- including by removing the offending employee (not the one who complained). But all too often, biases among those responsible for investigating sexual misconduct claims mean managers and executives are trusted, even when faced with multiple sexual misconduct complaints.
That appears to have been the case among the Ubisoft leadership. Unlike many other game publishers, Ubisoft has remained largely a family business since it was founded in 1986. The 5 Guillemot brothers who founded the company continue to own 21% of the company, maintain 5 seats on the board, and serve as executive officers within the large company.
They have also developed nearly familial relationships with some of their top executives. Serge Hascoët, chief creative officer, has been a close friend of the Guillemots’ for decades. He was given ultimate authority over which games the company would produce. In spite of allegations against Hascoët that he demeaned women and engaged in predatory behavior he was treated as a permanent fixture of the company. He and his team were “golden children,” said Cindy Fitzpatrick, who worked in Ubisoft’s public-relations department:
“No matter what they do, they seem untouchable.”
The sexist and often frat-like culture at Ubisoft even affected its products, according to its employees. Several of the products in the Assassin’s Creed franchise -- a historically based open-world action-adventure game -- were originally supposed to have female protagonists. However, in 2014, Hascoët said the next chapter of the game wouldn’t let players choose a female avatar, because “it was really a lot of extra production work” to add women’s animations and clothing to the game. Later games shrank the roles of women in their stories, minimizing female protagonists and moving men to the lead roles in their games.
By going public with their #MeToo stories, Ubisoft employees seem to have accomplished what internal sexual misconduct complaints could not. Chief Executive Officer Yves Guillemot has announced extensive changes -- even removing “golden child” Serge Hascoët -- in response to the negative publicity. Guillemot issued a statement announcing several changes in Ubisoft leadership saying:
“Ubisoft has fallen short in its obligation to guarantee a safe and inclusive workplace environment for its employees. . . . This is unacceptable, as toxic behaviors are in direct contrast to values on which I have never compromised—and never will. I am committed to implementing profound changes across the company to improve and strengthen our workplace culture.”
In addition to the chief creative officer, Ubisoft is removing the heads of HR and the Canadian studios. These departures could signal a change in the way the company responds to sexual misconduct in their workplace, and sexism within their products. In the past, employees were simply told to find a way to work with their harassers or look elsewhere. Now Ubisoft is demanding that its leaders “manage their teams with the utmost respect” and “drive the change we need” for the company.
Whether the new Ubisoft leadership -- notably still all men -- can drive systemic change in the workplace remains to be seen, but for the employees whose complaints had been ignored, the departure of Hascoët and others shows that the company may be open to listening to them after all.
At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our sexual harassment attorneys know what it feels like when sexual misconduct claims get swept under the rug in favor of executives’ family and friends. If you have been sexually harassed by a manager or supervisor who seems untouchable, we can help. We will meet with you and review your options when your employer chooses to believe their friends over your complaints. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.