Assassin's Creed Maker Finally Confronts Its Toxic Culture
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- All the warning signs were there: An industry that’s long struggled with sexism; an overwhelmingly male workforce; an emphasis on the privileged role of the creative mind.
The departures came after the French newspaper Liberation published a second installment of insider accounts on Friday of a “boys’ club” culture at the company, which it said was fostered by Chief Creative Officer Serge Hascoet. He resigned alongside human resources chief Cecile Cornet and Yannis Mallat, the head of Ubisoft’s studios in Canada, where much of the alleged behavior took place.
The scandal should refocus boardroom attention on fixing corporate cultures that promote toxicity. The first step has to be ensuring there are processes are in place to detect and identify such environments, that there are reporting channels and that complaints of misconduct are taken seriously.
The Liberation report said that Hascoet, who it described as Ubisoft Chief Executive Officer Yves Guillemot’s second-in-command, had witnessed sexual harassment first-hand, turned a blind eye to accusations and enabled a toxic culture — though it said he wasn’t personally guilty of harassment. Those who complained were told that was simply how creatives behaved, and that they should leave if they couldn’t handle it, the newspaper reported.
Cornet meanwhile built a human resources function that did little to protect female workers, according to the newspaper. Citing unidentified Ubisoft employees, Liberation reported that when the company introduced a tool to allow employees to report potential corruption, Cornet explicitly rejected a push to open it up for claims of harassment as well, a move that was reversed last week.
The company didn't directly address any of the specific accusations in a statement released later on Sunday. But it did commit to implementing significant changes in its workplace culture. It said Guillemot will personally oversee an overhaul of the way in which Ubisoft’s creative teams collaborate. The company will audit and reshape its human resources procedures to handle “new challenges” in the industry.
Sexism has long been a problem in the video game industry. Not only are female gamers three times as likely to receive online abuse as men, according to a 2015 study, there have also been problems with how women are portrayed in games (often either scantily clad or as damsels in distress) and with discrimination besetting the proportionately few women who work behind the scenes.
Earlier efforts to fix these problems seem to have made little headway: In 2012 women in the gaming industry took to social media using the hashtag #1reasonwhy with anecdotes about the obstacles (and worse) they’d encountered. In 2014 the Gamergate affair revealed widespread harassment. Tencent Ltd.-owned Riot Games last year offered to pay at least $10 million in order to settle a class action lawsuit over alleged gender discrimination.
Those that don’t take harassment seriously face repercussions, not least by making it hard to hire top female talent. In its most recent annual report, Ubisoft reported a 78% male workforce, noting this was similar to the rest of the industry.
Because many of the Ubisoft allegations focus on Canada, it may leave the French company more financially exposed too. It currently receives more than 100 million euros ($113 million) in subsidies and tax breaks there, thanks in part to a Quebecois tax credit that can top 37% of labor expenses. It’s a measure that has been the subject of vociferous criticism, not least from other tech executives, for benefiting foreign companies at the expense of the region’s homegrown firms. The harassment allegations might prompt politicians to think again. Ending the Canadian subsidies would have severe financial implications for Ubisoft, since they alone reduce global payroll costs by 11%.
The company has been rattled by its early mismanagement of employees’ well-being, and is now trying to act fast to handle the fallout with the departure of three top execs. The upheaval could disrupt the release schedule for its upcoming games, analysts at Jefferies Financial Group Inc. wrote on Monday. That would cause an even bigger headache for a company that already delayed the launch of three games last year, after two of its tentpole releases — Ghost Recon Breakpoint and Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 — missed expectations.
The shakeup at Ubisoft is a timely reminder that failing to fix a rotting company culture has deep ramifications.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Alex Webb is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Europe's technology, media and communications industries. He previously covered Apple and other technology companies for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.
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