Ubisoft Family Accused of Mishandling Sexual Misconduct Claims
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Five brothers started Ubisoft Entertainment SA in 1986 and since then the video game company has survived seven generations of game consoles, four recessions, a hostile takeover bid from France’s largest media conglomerate, and a global pandemic. Ubisoft is one of the world’s largest game publishers, the maker of blockbuster series such as Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, and the Guillemot family still maintains effective control. Now they face a new crisis: allegations of widespread sexual misconduct at the company. The situation has shaken up the founders’ inner circle and raised major concerns about how the business was managed for well over a decade.
More than a dozen people made public claims of sexual harassment and abuse against employees of Ubisoft over the past few weeks. The outpouring is part of a broader #MeToo movement taking hold in the game industry, and the Paris-based company has been the most frequent target of allegations. Interviews with more than three dozen current or former Ubisoft employees indicate that these claims, and many others that haven’t previously come to light, had been gathering dust in company logs for years. In some instances, Ubisoft took action, but for the most part, complaints were ignored, mishandled, or undermined, employees say.
The accusations filed to Ubisoft’s human resources department range from subtle forms of sexism to sexual assault, according to two people with access to the reports. In interviews with Bloomberg Businessweek, many employees detailed an atmosphere that was hostile toward women, often describing the Paris headquarters as a frat house. Staff openly made misogynist or racist comments across the publisher’s various offices, and senior executives took part and escalated the misconduct in the form of inappropriate touching or other sexual advances, current and former employees say. On one occasion before this summer, when Ubisoft sided with an alleged victim, the company removed the woman’s boss and rewarded the woman with a gift card, she says.
A spokesperson for Ubisoft declined to comment or arrange interviews for this story. Chief Executive Officer Yves Guillemot has promised extensive changes and has taken steps that many staff once saw as unlikely. Those include the ousters of Serge Hascoët, chief creative officer and a close friend of Guillemot’s for decades, and the heads of HR and the Canadian studios. The former executives didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
“Ubisoft has fallen short in its obligation to guarantee a safe and inclusive workplace environment for its employees,” Guillemot said in a statement on July 12 in Paris announcing the executive departures. “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.”
Guillemot, the middle of the five brothers, has been CEO since 1988; together, the siblings hold 21% of the company’s stock and five seats on the board. The brothers speak weekly and hold regular get-togethers on their yacht, according to a 2016 article on the French newswire AFP. The image of Ubisoft as a family business was a source of inspiration for many employees over the years. But others say the dynamic facilitated a culture in which longtime staff, especially Hascoët and his team, were given agency to misbehave. “There are golden children,” says Cindy Fitzpatrick, who worked in Ubisoft’s public-relations department from 2005 to 2009. “No matter what they do, they seem untouchable.”
Several employees say they were pleasantly surprised, even shocked, by the company’s swift response to allegations once they were made public in recent weeks. Hascoët was long seen as a permanent fixture of the company, they say, despite allegations that he demeaned female subordinates and surrounded himself with men accused of predatory behavior. Many other employees expressed doubts that a company run by the same men who presided over a toxic environment could deliver the type of systemic changes needed to ensure the safety of female workers, who are outnumbered about 4 to 1 by men at Ubisoft.
“The culture there is really hard as a woman,” says Ellen Lee, who worked in marketing and promotions at Ubisoft’s San Francisco office for seven years. “If you weren’t part of the boys’ club, you were just working hard on the outskirts.”
The Guillemot brothers got their first tutorial on business from their parents. The elder Guillemots operated an agriculture business in Carentoir, France, which sold chemicals, equipment parts, and, eventually, computers. Amid the economic recession of the early 1980s, business was on the decline. So, with their parents’ permission, the children began selling computer games at the shop to farmers looking to put their new machines to use.
In 1988, the year Yves Guillemot was named CEO of Ubisoft, the company hired Hascoët. He started as a video game tester, a job he got by applying to a newspaper ad, according to a 2017 article in the French publication Le Monde. Hascoët later helped create Ubisoft’s editorial department, which supervises every game the company puts out. As head of creative, he oversaw the development of blockbuster franchises including Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and Watch Dogs.
Hascoët was treated almost like a member of the family. He was given ultimate authority to cancel, greenlight, or overhaul any game to his specifications. Project reviews would take place at a type of meeting known within Ubisoft as “gates,” and Hascoët was usually the gatekeeper.
Developers routinely swapped stories of their interactions with Hascoët, who they often portrayed as eccentric or sometimes with less charitable descriptions, according to seven current or former employees. During presentations he would bang his head against the table, a sign that he was bored or unhappy. He was infamous for what colleagues described as growling, a sort of guttural noise he would direct at people in meetings or while passing in the hallway.
Three women who worked at Ubisoft say they’d been warned not to go out drinking with Hascoët and his crew. He sometimes held business meetings at strip clubs, a habit that his deputies began to adopt, say the employees, who asked not to be identified because they are either still employed by Ubisoft or worried about retribution. The women elected not to attend those outings and said their careers suffered as a result. They were frustrated to watch Hascoët promote many of his strip club buddies to creative directors, a group composed almost entirely of men.
Allegations that Hascoët behaved inappropriately around women extended to the office as well. In a meeting at Ubisoft’s headquarters in Paris, one of the top creative leads on a big game was presenting to Hascoët and other decision-makers at the company. When the lead, a woman, left the room to use the bathroom, Hascoët pulled up a YouTube video, according to two people present at the meeting. He played a French song describing sexually explicit acts with a woman who has the same name as the presenter. He hit pause when the employee walked back into the room, say the two people, who requested that the woman’s name not be printed. As was common in high-level meetings at Ubisoft, there were no other women present.
Hascoët’s reputation had been well-known around the company for years, say 10 people who worked there over a period spanning more than a decade. On July 10 the French newspaper Libération reported that Hascoët had allegedly made sexually explicit comments to staff, pushed subordinates to drink excessively, and gave colleagues cakes containing marijuana without their knowledge.
Because Hascoët appeared to be immune to HR complaints, employees say they were forced to either find a way to work with him or seek employment elsewhere.
Allegations of harassment and sexism extended far beyond Hascoët and his subordinates. In 2015 a group of staff in Sofia, Bulgaria, were watching a trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens featuring the actor John Boyega, who’s Black. According to Fey Vercuiel, a former designer on the team: “People just collectively went, ‘Hey, look, it’s a monkey.’” In San Francisco, Dawn Le was instructed by her manager to smile more and was later told she would be fired from her job as a purchasing specialist if her attitude didn’t improve, she says. Each woman reported the incidents to HR, and their claims were dismissed without action. “You complain about something, it just gets swept under the rug,” Vercuiel says.
Nina Stewart was working at Ubisoft’s customer service center in Morrisville, N.C., last year when, she says, her manager started making strange comments to her. He would detail other women’s bodies in explicit ways and make derogatory comments about hers, she says. “He’d make sexist and fatphobic remarks about me to my whole team,” Stewart says. “Every time he’d say something disgusting, I’d tell him that was inappropriate. I’d say, ‘That makes me uncomfortable.’”
Stewart went to Ubisoft HR twice about her manager, and both times she was told to “talk it out” with him, she says. It was only after her third visit, she says, when a male co-worker corroborated her claims, that the company removed her boss. “I received a thank-you card from HR,” Stewart says. Attached to the note was a $200 Visa gift card, she says. Stewart, who’s left the company, calls it a “trash employer.”
The Toronto office was especially problematic, six current or former employees there say. The studio was run by Maxime Béland, his wife, Rima Brek, and another husband-and-wife management team. Brek served for a time as interim director of HR, the people there say. Two women who reported incidents to Brek and other HR representatives in Toronto say they felt ostracized afterward and were labeled as troublemakers. Brek didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Béland was a trusted lieutenant of the creative chief. He was also known for his quick temper and a tendency to scream at subordinates during meetings, say four people who worked in the office. Two of those people say they saw Béland touch women inappropriately at holiday parties and other work events. Béland was also accused of choking an employee at a party, according to the video game website Kotaku. The choking story was regularly shared among staff in Toronto, say the people who worked there, as a warning about the executive. Béland didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Back in Paris, another one of Hascoët’s men had developed a problematic reputation. Tommy François, a 13-year veteran of Ubisoft, openly flirted with subordinates, made homophobic jokes, and performed unwanted massages, say 10 people who witnessed or were the subjects of his alleged abuses. François didn’t respond to requests for comment. Newcomers to the company were told it was “Tommy being Tommy,” the people say.
A woman who worked at headquarters says she faced repeated harassment there. Colleagues sent her sexually explicit messages, including pornographic videos, she says. François, who was several levels above her on the organizational chart, asked her out for a drink four or five times, and she refused each invitation, she says. The woman, who asked not to be identified over concerns that speaking publicly would damage her career, says she reported all of the incidents to HR and nothing happened. Later she was told she would have to move to an Ubisoft studio in a different country. She did, and says she was frequently told there “you can’t be a producer—you’re a woman.” Less than a year after relocating, she quit.
Current and former employees say Hascoët enabled bad behavior by fashioning the editorial quarters into a sort of frat like the one in Animal House. People who worked in the department describe pornographic videos on computers, boozy lunches, and a chorus of inappropriate jokes. Five workers say they reported François to HR at various points over the past decade, some of them multiple times, for incidents including sexual propositions and genital grabbing. One former Ubisoft employee says they wrote an email to the CEO some years ago about problems with François. Not long after, François was promoted.
The machismo of Ubisoft’s offices seeps into the company’s games, current and former employees say. Ubisoft’s biggest franchise is Assassin’s Creed, a series of open-world action-adventure games in which players explore historic settings and sneak around killing people. Most games in the series star male protagonists. This has been a point of contention as far back as 2014, when an Ubisoft creative director said Assassin’s Creed Unity wouldn’t let people play online as female characters because “it was really a lot of extra production work” to add women’s clothing and animations to the game.
For the next game, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, an early outline of the script gave equal screen time to the twin protagonists, Jacob and Evie, according to three people who worked on the project. In the end, Jacob dominated the game. Assassin’s Creed Origins, released in 2017, was originally going to injure or kill off its male hero, Bayek, early in the story and give the player control of his wife, Aya, according to two people who worked on it. But Aya’s role gradually shrank over the course of development and Bayek became the leading figure.
Development of 2018’s Assassin’s Creed Odyssey went much the same way. The game tells the story of siblings Kassandra and Alexios. The team originally proposed making the sister the only playable character, according to four people who worked on the game, until they were told that wasn’t an option. The final product gives players a choice between the two characters.
Current and former Ubisoft employees say these changes, which haven’t been previously reported, are illustrative of the sexism ingrained within the company. All of the directives came from Ubisoft’s marketing department or from Hascoët, both of whom suggested female protagonists wouldn’t sell, the developers say. This false perception has been commonly held in the video game industry for decades. It ignores hits such as the Tomb Raider series or Sony Corp.’s Horizon Zero Dawn, which sold more than 10 million copies.
Developers say they were compelled to make big compromises to avoid changes from Hascoët that might be detrimental to their project or result in outright cancellation. For example, Hascoët openly expressed disdain for linear storytelling and cut scenes, the interstitial videos that exist between gameplay to advance the narrative. The writers had to find ways to keep his attention, and often that involved installing a strong male lead, the employees say.
By 2019, though, there were signs Hascoët was losing his creative magic. Ubisoft released two big flops: The Division 2, an online game that failed to meet sales expectations despite critical acclaim, and Ghost Recon Breakpoint, a tactical shooter that was widely panned. Ubisoft had developed a reputation, in large part because of Hascoët, for releasing games with similar tropes: large, open-world environments giving the player a list of tasks to accomplish and checkpoints to clear. By the end of last year, Ubisoft’s stock declined more than 40% from its high a year earlier.
As a result of these failures, the company overhauled the editorial department, elevating seven vice presidents reporting to Hascoët. The goal was to distribute Hascoët’s power and diversify the games, employees say. All seven vice presidents were men. Béland and François were among those promoted, despite a history of misconduct complaints.
The #MeToo movement didn’t sweep through the video game business the way it did in adjacent industries of media and technology. It came in fits and starts over the past few years, perhaps impeded by the legacy of Gamergate and a pervasive hostility toward women. But it had a big moment this summer, when dozens of women shared stories on Twitter and in Medium posts of harassment and sexual assault at the hands of game developers and video streaming personalities.
Béland and François were among the first men named on Twitter. Ubisoft moved quickly in late June to place the executives on administrative leave, along with several other employees publicly accused of wrongdoing. Béland has since left the company, according to Ubisoft. François’s employment status is unclear.
In emails to staff, Yves Guillemot promised big changes. He said the company would hire a consulting firm to audit and revise HR policies. “As we collectively embark on a path leading to a better Ubisoft, it is my expectation that leaders across the company manage their teams with the utmost respect,” he said in a statement. “I also expect them to work to drive the change we need, always thinking of what is best for Ubisoft and all its employees.”
A former member of Ubisoft’s HR team, who asked not to be identified because of concerns about legal repercussions, says management held a general distrust of victims, which hindered the department’s ability to properly respond to complaints. In recent weeks, Ubisoft employees have submitted complaints detailing repeated inappropriate jokes from colleagues, unwanted sexual propositions, groping at parties, and sexual assault, according to two people who’ve seen the reports. Some employees say they originally filed some of these allegations years ago.
On July 12, Ubisoft announced the departures of Hascoët, creative chief; Cécile Cornet, global head of HR; and Yannis Mallat, managing director of Ubisoft’s Canadian studios. “The recent allegations that have come to light in Canada against multiple employees make it impossible for him to continue in this position,” the company said in a statement about Mallat. Ubisoft remains a family business, though. The company replaced Mallat last week with Christophe Derennes, another veteran employee. Derennes is the Guillemots’ cousin, according to three employees.
Kim Belair, a veteran narrative designer who’s worked for Ubisoft and other game companies, calls the family-run company “a specifically difficult example” of cultural issues because so many of the people at the top are so close. “The entire mindset of the company has to change,” Belair says. “These bad actors were allowed to exist in this system. We have to reevaluate this system. We have to look at why this culture exists.”
One of Hascoët’s favorite buzzwords, according to those who worked with him, is systemic. In industry parlance, it describes a part of the gameplay with which the player can interact and experiment. Hascoët would frequently tell developers to strive for experiences that were systemic, employees say. The irony isn’t lost on current staff, who agreed to discuss issues of sexual misconduct under the condition of anonymity. As one employee puts it: “At least we did succeed in being systemic somewhere.”
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