We return today to the saga surrounding Activision Blizzard and its chief compliance officer Frances Townsend — because, much to my astonishment, this story is getting even stranger. Townsend is doubling down on her statements about whistleblowers and, apparently, blocking employees on Twitter who disagree with her.
Townsend made headlines last week for an ill-phrased email she sent to Activision’s 9,500 employees, telling them that a lawsuit California regulators had filed against the company for a sexually harassing culture “presented a distorted and untrue picture of our company, including factually inaccurate, old, and out of context stories.”
Those choice words (plus a few others in her email) left Activision employees enraged, since the lawsuit’s allegations — which included some truly awful stuff — seemed to jibe with their lived experience at the company. Moreover, other senior executives at Activision were already admitting that the company had failed to support female employees for years.
In response to Townsend’s message, employees launched a petition calling her words “abhorrent and insulting to all that we believe our company should stand for.” Then they staged a walkout on July 29. The company, bumbling around for any way to defuse this mess, quickly decided to let employees take paid time off for the walkout and hired law firm WilmerHale to conduct an investigation into the accusations.
[UPDATE: Activision CEO Allen Brack was fired Tuesday morning.]
So what did Townsend do on Friday, July 30, to cap such a tumultuous week? She retweeted the following article.
The article had appeared two days earlier in the Atlantic, dissecting a whistleblower drama at Yale Law School involving professor Amy Chua. (Yes, the same Amy Chua who defended Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2017, who later hired Chua’s daughter for a clerkship.) The central question in the article is whether Chua violated Yale policies by hosting two students during the pandemic, or whether critics of Chua (and there are plenty of them) abused Yale’s internal reporting processes to open fire on Chua’s reputation.
My question isn’t whether that article raises legitimate questions about the abuses of internal reporting systems. My question is how on earth did Townsend think, given all Activision’s problems at the moment, that sending a message like that was a good idea?
As one might expect, reaction to Townsend’s tweet has not been kind. Here are a few select responses.
Moreover, at least several people say Townsend has responded to the vitriol against her by blocking them on Twitter. I can’t confirm that because she hasn’t blocked me, but numerous video game bloggers and reporters are passing along that news; enough people for me to believe those claims are accurate.
[ANOTHER UPDATE: Townsend apparently deleted her Twitter account earlier this week.]
A Compliance Officer’s Core Duty
After my first post about Townsend and her statement to employees, numerous compliance officers contacted me to ask whether it’s even accurate to describe Townsend as the company’s “chief compliance officer.” After all, they said, her formal title is “corporate secretary and executive vice president of corporate affairs.” So does Townsend even count as the company’s head of compliance?
First — yes, she does, because Activision itself described Townsend as its chief compliance officer when it announced her hiring back in March.
But the question is still an important one to raise, because Townsend’s actions so far suggest that she doesn’t understand what the ethics and compliance officer’s job is all about.
Take her original statement. The sad part is that lots of what Townsend said to employees was good. She talked about specific steps Activision has taken to combat harassment and discrimination. She talked about how the company reviews compensation and promotion policies so that they are fair and based on merit. She talked about wanting to hold people accountable.
Has Activision always been good at those things? Probably not, but Townsend has only been on the job for five months. She could have stopped there, making the above-mentioned points; and conveyed the message that she is part of the team trying to fix a flawed culture.
Alas, she didn’t stop there. She included criticism of the California lawsuit, which implicitly criticizes the employees who made those allegations to California regulators. Townsend took the defensive crouch so typical of corporate legal teams — but that’s not the job of an ethics and compliance officer.
Your job is to stand there and listen to the allegations, however unfair or ill-informed or flat-out nutty they might be, all in the name of building a corporate culture where employees feel comfortable speaking up. It’s not about separating the wheat from the chaff; it’s about tolerating the chaff so you can find the wheat.
As to Townsend’s tweet from this weekend and subsequent blocking of employees — that’s just more of the same. At least in her first statement to employees, she was in a defensive crouch for the company. These latest stunts look like a defensive crouch for her personally. She comes across as thin-skinned and removed from the people trying to make the company run. That’s a terrible image to project if your job is supposed to be about fostering a speakup culture.
One of Activision’s core values is “Every Voice Matters,” which the company describes as follows:
The chief compliance officer’s job is to support that culture — not to s0w division, and then block people who call you out for doing so.