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Ubisoft CEO defends company against criticism of reforms, but campaigners demand deeper change

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Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot has defended the company’s efforts at reforming itself following an explosive wave of harassment allegations against senior staff in 2020. Speaking to GI.biz, Guillemot repudiated reports that the company had made minimal progress in the wake of the harassment scandal, speaking in-depth about high-profile dismissals, new company structures, and why he didn’t quit as CEO when it became clear how toxic Ubisoft’s workplace had become.

The interview comes three days after Ubi staff from the A Better Ubisoft campaign sat down with the AC Sisterhood blog to criticise the speed and scale of the company’s response to reports of employee abuse. Staff from the campaign—speaking anonymously—highlighted that numerous Ubisoft employees accused of abusive behaviour remain at the company, with some of them even receiving promotions in the last two years.

Guillemot wasn’t confronted directly with the criticisms made by A Better Ubisoft, but he touched on a lot of the same topics. “We have done a lot and I think we are a company that can be proud of itself,” he said on the subject of alleged abusers still working at the company. He points out that the company “acted quickly in cutting some people’s jobs” after abuse allegations came to light, and noted that any current Ubisoft employee named in a report has been subject to an investigation and either cleared or “appropriately disciplined and given an individualised action plan” to rectify their behaviour.

From A Better Ubisoft’s point of view, those action plans have been hardly sufficient. “Not only do we believe it’s still happening but we can see it happening for ourselves,” said one campaign member, with another adding that, while “global management may not be aware of it,” few changes have been made on a per-studio level that “[… ]prevent the cultures that foster the protection of ‘the best people’”.

Guillemot also spoke about the organisational changes that have been made at Ubisoft to better foster communication between executives and employees. In particular, he points to the introduction of a company-wide employee survey and regular meetings between employee groups and leadership teams—including Guillemot himself—as evidence of an ongoing cultural shift at the company. Guillemot told GI that the company was “open to criticisms,” and that when employees find valid faults, Ubisoft “[goes] after them to solve them”. Guillemot also points to the three elected Employee Representatives that now sit on Ubisoft’s Board of Directors as evidence of the company’s commitment to employee feedback.

Staff from A Better Ubisoft addressed a lot of these same issues in their interview with AC Sisterhood, lambasting Ubisoft’s employee feedback initiatives as “patronizingly, paternalistically top-down… centrally controlled and carefully limited”. The employee surveys were accused of being made up of “biased questions” and management’s “own make-believe”. They acknowledge that, while some changes have taken place and “the vibe has changed a bit,” deeper reform efforts are stymied by the continuing presence of alleged abusers in management and the limited scope of the changes Ubisoft has made thus far.

Finally, Guillemot addressed the elephant in the room of his own continuing leadership of the company. Given that the toxic culture that’s blighted Ubisoft developed under his watch (as, indeed, has pretty much everything else: Guillemot has been CEO of the company since 1988), many questioned why he didn’t step down when the scale of the problem became apparent.

“It was obvious for me that I had a responsibility to take care of the situation so that we could get back to what we were before: a company where people feel they can be themselves and come together to create the best games,” Guillemot explained. “My goal when I co-founded the company was to create a place where you can always be yourself,” and realising that the company was failing to achieve that goal was “really disturbing” for its longtime CEO. “It was obvious for me to go and take care of that situation, so we could go back to what we have been for a long time”.

It’s a pretty glowing self-assessment from Guillemot: a personal sense of responsibility obliged him to remain and right the ship, and it’s hard to take that completely at face value. Still, Guillemot deserves credit for building Ubisoft into what it is, and with regards to the working environment does fairly point out that 600 of the 4000 people Ubisoft has hired this past year have been returning former employees. 

Between the interview with Guillemot and the testimony from A Better Ubisoft, it feels unfair to say that the company—even in the rarefied airs of management—isn’t genuinely committed on some level to fixing its problems. It’s just that the company’s ability to do that is being pulled in multiple directions: fix the company culture, but do it without generating bad PR, without surrendering too much power from the executive to the employee level, without impacting revenue too badly, and without causing a ruckus. It doesn’t seem possible, which is no doubt why current criticisms of the company focus on the minuscule scale of the progress made in the last two years.

When asked how they would bring wide and lasting change to the company, A Better Ubisoft had one answer: “… any real solution to safety in the workplace and addressing toxic management can only come from the bottom up”. Only the “voluntary recognition of unions is the way we gain that seat at the table” that staff continue to demand.

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