Activision Blizzard is looking to hire at least 19 people to build up its ethics and compliance function, as part of a broader effort to address complaints from regulators and employees that the company tolerated a poor corporate culture for years.
The hiring plans were announced in a staff memo circulated last week by Frances Townsend, Activision’s head of corporate affairs and chief compliance officer. Townsend also announced several personnel moves that have already happened, plus structural reforms to the investigations and HR teams at Activision; and just generally tried to mend fences with employees who have been irked with Townsend since last summer.
The full run-down of news is as follows:
- Jen Brewer has been promoted to senior vice president of ethics and compliance. Brewer has been with Activision since 2012, and had been vice president of compliance and chief risk officer.
- Activision has already hired three full-time ethics and compliance employees who will report into Brewer. One of them is Joy Hayes, who joined last month as a senior director of ethics and compliance. Nineteen more to go!
- All the investigations groups across Activision will be consolidated into a single investigations team, and that team will now be part of a single, enterprise-wide ethics and compliance function. “This will allow investigators to be more efficient and coordinated, aligned on approach, and enable consistent decision making,” Townsend wrote.
- Townsend said the company will develop and share formal documentation of the company’s internal reporting and investigation protocols, so employees know what to expect when they file a complaint. The company will also try to share more data about internal reporting and even the outcome of investigations when that’s possible (while respecting privacy and legal concerns). “[W]here we can, we will be sharing more information with you. We will also be providing you regular aggregate data about investigative outcomes,” she wrote.
- The company will expand its network of volunteer ethics and compliance ambassadors, who are known as “heroes” within Activision. “The Heroes are crucial to our success,” Townsend said. “We are expanding the program by adding more Heroes and investing resources to better support the work they do.” Even better for the heroes: effective immediately, they get one extra vacation day every quarter.
Townsend also said that since Activision’s meltdown earlier this summer — where California regulators filed a lawsuit against the company alleging a culture rife with sexual harassment, and then Townsend herself made matters worse by saying the allegations in the lawsuit were “distorted, and in many cases false” — more than 20 employees have “exited” the business, and at least 20 more have faced discipline for their misconduct.
Activision hasn’t said much about exactly who these now-fired offenders were. But in an interview last week with the Financial Times, Townsend said none of the dismissals came from senior management ranks or the board. They did include game developers and some supervisors.
Will Activision’s Efforts Actually Work?
Well, the efforts seem to be sincere so far. They also touch on important elements of a successful compliance program: independence for the compliance function itself, a structured process for handling complaints, transparency into the investigations process so the workforce has a better idea of what to expect. A large corporation can’t have a strong culture of compliance without those things.
Still, let’s not mince words. All evidence suggests that Activision had a terrible corporate culture for years, leaving its employees alienated from the senior management team and cynical about any talk from those leaders about reform. Townsend and the rest have a lot of painstaking work in front of them to win back the faith of the workforce. It will require humility and patience, two qualities that are often in short supply among senior executives at large, publicly traded companies.
For example, consider this tweet from Jessica Gonzalez, a senior test analyst at Activision and clearly someone unafraid to speak her mind:
Frances Townsend speaking with the Financial Times about the strides that are creating a more accountable workplace comes just before the Activision Blizzard earnings call (scheduled for November 2nd). This is nothing but a performance for shareholders.
— Jessica Gonzalez 💙 For the Alliance! (@BlizzJess) October 20, 2021
Disaffected employees have banded together into a group known as A Better ABK (“ABK” standing for Activision Blizzard and a subsidiary named King), which now has its own Twitter feed and even published its first newsletter the other week. Will those employees be able to maintain enthusiasm and focus? Will they find Activision management to be a true partner for change, or will the two sides settle into a corporate culture cold war?
I don’t know, but I’ll be watching. (I’d also be remiss if I didn’t praise all the full-time gamer journalists out there who follow Activision much more closely than I. PC Gamer, for example, published a great update over the weekend.)
And one can’t help but come back to the role of Townsend herself. She has impressive credentials for… well, some other job at some other company. Given Townsend’s national security experience, I’d have expected her to turn up as vice-chair of a private security giant, or general counsel at a global risk consultancy, or something like that. Reviving the battered culture of a video game company filled with millennial workers seems like a stretch.
Above all, however, compliance professionals everywhere should want strong corporate cultures to succeed. So first and foremost, I hope all these reforms work.