Riot Games – lessons from a corporate culture of harassment

By Jeff Jones
Special to the UCBJ

Riot Games. It may sound like an oxymoron but it’s actually a multi-million-dollar corporation specializing in video game development and e-sports tournaments; it is based in California but operates in 24 offices around the world with over 2,500 employees, 80 percent of whom are male. A lawsuit recently filed against Riot Games, Inc. alleges the Company encouraged a “bro culture” and operated the business more like a fraternity than a workplace. The case was filed by two Riot Games employees (one current and one former) and seeks to establish a class action against the Company based on allegations of systemic gender-discrimination including claims of equal pay discrimination, various forms of sexual harassment, and related misconduct, as well as retaliation.

Three months prior to the November lawsuit, the online gaming blog, Kotaku, released the results of an investigation into the Company’s culture which included interviewing 28 current and former employees. The report contained serious allegations such as male co-workers openly denigrating females in Company meetings, exhibiting aggressive hostility towards female colleagues, upper level management sexually evaluating female employees, and male employees sending unsolicited pictures of their genitalia to female co-workers. Shortly after the Kotaku publication, Riot Games issued a statement which included an apology and a promise to address these issues including taking steps to “weave…change into our cultural DNA and leave no room for sexism or misogyny. Inclusivity, diversity, respect and equality are all non-negotiable.”

The lawsuit alleges the Company had a practice of paying women less than similarly-situated men, assigning women to less desirable jobs, promoting men more frequently and over similarly-situated and qualified women, as well as maintaining and encouraging a sexually discriminatory work environment. The allegations include claims that an officer bragged about visiting strip clubs on work trips, another male employee commented about drugging and raping a female employee, and male employees allegedly circulated emails with jokes intended to demean women’s intellect or that were sexually explicit. The lawsuit is in its early stages and Riot Games will no doubt resist the claims.

The scenario provides a good example of how unacceptable behavior, left unchecked, can grow into a systemic problem within an organization so deep that it becomes a company culture.  So, what can other employers learn from Riot Games’ difficulties?

First and foremost, organizational culture mattersand it starts with the upper levels of management.  Harassment and discrimination prevention is a multi-pronged process, which includes creating a culture of mutual respect in the workplace. That culture of respect, in turn, may be an employer’s best hope at preventing complaints of harassment and discrimination from occurring in the first place.

While a written policy alone will not work as a vaccine against harassment issues, a strong, comprehensive policy is a necessary component and should include provisions designed to make it easy to report alleged misconduct such as:

  • A clear statement that harassment based on any legallyprotected characteristic will not be tolerated;
  • An easy-to-understand description of prohibited conduct, including examples;
  • A description of a reporting system, available to employees who experience orobserve harassment and that provides multiple, easily accessible avenues to report; employers should consider a system to enable anonymous reporting of complaints such as a hotline;
  • A statement that the reporting system will provide a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation; and
  • An assurance that the employer will take immediate and proportionate corrective action if it determines that harassment has occurred.

Unequivocal, frequent communication about the organization’s commitment to a culture of mutual respect is critical.  Beautiful policy statements alone are insufficient, however – those policies must be reinforced with:

  • Allocating money and staff time appropriately;
  • Delegating authority to investigate and take prompt, consistent, proportionate action;
  • Assessing organizational-specific risks and taking steps to minimize them;
  • Using workplace climate surveys to assess the effectiveness of its programs and policies; and
  • Training and evaluating supervisors and mid-level managers on prevention, recognition and response to problematic behaviors (including applying performance metrics to supervisors and managers).
  • Train everybody, but train supervisors and managers differently, and donot rely solely on passive learning, such videos and pre-recorded lectures.

In this age of increased transparency and accountability, inaction regarding the prevention of harassment and discrimination is simply not an option.  Organizations should frequently evaluate policies and procedures, and consider multiple ways to communicate the message of mutual respect, accountability and responsibility in clear and simple terms.  Train everyone and document it. Train managers and supervisors about their specific roles and responsibilities, and consequences for failing to act.

Survey your employees – inquire about their perceptions regarding the organization’s commitment to harassment prevention and ask them for suggestions about improvements they would like to see to its systems.  Keep paying attention to the data that will begin to emerge about the most effective approaches to harassment prevention, and, in the meantime, continue to conduct training at regular intervals.

Not every organization faces the same internal turmoil or external pressures that Riot Games is facing, but the messages leaders convey to the individuals who work with or for them have consequences.

Jeffrey G. Jones is a regional managing member for Wimberly Lawson Wright Daves & Jones PLLC. He can be reached at jjones@wimberlylawson.com.

Submit your story ideas to the Upper Cumberland Business Journal! via email.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.