- Ubisoft, the video game giant, has been rocked through June and July by allegations of sexual harassment and assault made against senior staff.
- CEO Yves Guillemot has promised sweeping changes as seemingly “untouchable” senior employees resign or are suspended pending the results of investigations.
- But some staff are sceptical. More than a dozen current and former employees told Business Insider that misogyny was deep-rooted at the firm, which has 18,000 staff and offices around the world.
- As well as making fresh allegations of sexual harassment, including against editorial vice president Tommy François, they warned that getting rid of individuals would not lead to widespread cultural change.
- François did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Ubisoft declined to comment directly on specific allegations.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
During a business trip to Montreal in 2016, Tommy François, one of the most senior creative minds at video game giant Ubisoft, told male and female colleagues sitting around the breakfast table that he had spent the entire night masturbating, two people present told Business Insider.
As everyone ate eggs and muesli from the hotel buffet, he showed coworkers a video he claimed to have watched during the night, they said.
Five current and former Ubisoft employees who have worked in the same office as François told Business Insider that he regularly judged female colleagues’ looks out loud, massaged people without asking permission (“He never asked, he just did it,” one woman said), and touched men’s genitals in the elevator by playing a French game called “chat-bite,” which would roughly translate to “dick-tag.”
Many of the stories told to Business Insider echo those in an extensive report in French national newspaper Libération, published July 1.
Tommy François did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Business Insider. He denied the allegations in the Libération report through a legal representative, Jérémie Assous. Assous also did not respond to Business Insider’s requests for comment.
Ubisoft confirmed to Business Insider it has placed François on administrative leave, pending the results of an investigation.
But allegations of misogyny at Ubisoft – which is best known for the Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and Watch Dogs series and has offices all over the world – extend far beyond one man.
For this article, Business Insider spoke to more than a dozen current and former employees whose careers at the company spanned the last 15 years. The majority said that the departures of individuals will not alone change the company’s culture.
Maxime Beland, an editorial vice president based in Toronto, resigned on July 5 after facing multiple accusations of harassment, and allegations that he put his hands around a female colleague’s neck. The allegations first emerged on social media and were reported by Kotaku. Beland has so far declined to comment on these allegations, and Ubisoft said it would continue to investigate him after his departure.
On July 12, three of Ubisoft’s most senior employees stepped down amid growing allegations of harassment at the company.
Serge Hascoet, the company’s chief creative officer, resigned. An Ubisoft HR source told Libération that Hascoet was known “for his toxicity, his misogyny, his homophobia” – he didn’t respond to questions from the newspaper.
Yannis Mallat, head of the company’s Canadian operations, including its world-renowned studio in Montreal, also stepped down. Ubisoft said the “recent allegations that have come to light in Canada against multiple employees make it impossible for him to continue in this position.”
And global head of HR Cécile Cornet left her role, but remains at the company in a new position. Ubisoft said she believed stepping down “is in the best interest of the company’s unity.”
Ubisoft cofounder and CEO Yves Guillemot has promised “profound changes across the company to improve and strengthen our workplace culture,” and, as revealed by Business Insider, has pledged to “personally follow” each allegation. The company has brought in external investigators. And given both the tidal wave of similar allegations across the entire industry and the size of Ubisoft, which has a market cap of $US8.5 billion and 18,000 employees, Guillemot’s handling of his company could be a turning point in a long-standing battle against sexism in video game development.
Some at Ubisoft remain sceptical.
A sexist culture stretches from “top to bottom,” one former editorial employee who worked for Ubisoft for four years in the 2010s said.
She shared with Business Insider allegations that she was harassed by multiple men of varying seniority in Ubisoft’s Paris office. One man badgered her about having sex with him on a near-daily basis, she said. She said he would sit next to her and ask where he fit into her calendar, and what room they would have sex in. “It was horrible,” she said.
Another man regularly greeted her with a kiss on each cheek, she said. “La bise” is a common greeting in France – but he also ran his hand from her neck to the bottom of her back as he kissed her, she said.
She said that a third man, whom she trusted, and who still works at the company, put his hand on her leg while she was asleep on a flight. She awoke to his hand creeping up her thigh, she told Business Insider, and jumped out of her seat. That same day, she described the incident to another person who had been on the flight. That person confirmed to Business Insider they had heard the story.
The culture spread outward from François, she said, through a tight-knit “boys’ club” at Ubisoft’s Editorial Creative Services (ECS) team, which comprises around 25 people, and out to other editorial staff in the Paris office. Nearly all the reports of misconduct in the Paris office stem from the editorial floor, according to the sources who spoke to us.
When the former employee entered the office, or crossed the open-plan editorial floor, male colleagues would regularly talk about “how my hair was, how I was dressed, if it was good or not, how my body was,” she said. This was confirmed by another person, who said they witnessed the behaviour. She was too scared to wear high heels or certain dresses – and too scared to drink at work events, she told Business Insider.
Two years after leaving the company, she said she is still afraid of working in an office. Several other employees told Business Insider they sought psychological help after working at the company.
She is sceptical that getting rid of François will make a real difference – Ubisoft needs to “purge the studio” if it wants cultural change, she said. “François is one of many other men … I think it’s much, much bigger. It’s a male culture, and the roots are super deep.”
Multiple sources said those roots stretch across the Atlantic, too.
Chelsea O’Hara, who worked at Ubisoft Toronto between 2016 and 2018, wrote a blog post on July 2 in which she described being groped in the back of a taxi by a coworker on the way home from an event. She told Business Insider that the incident occured in late 2017, and that she was drunk at the time, but aware of what was happening. She felt “shocked and vulnerable,” she said. She did not later confront the man or report the incident to HR.
A former colleague of O’Hara confirmed to Business Insider that she told him about the alleged assault in early 2018.
O’Hara told Business Insider she was “super pessimistic” about the prospect of cultural change.
“Removing a few directors – that’s just PR,” she said. “You are going to have to upend the entire foundation of that company.”
Both O’Hara and the former Paris employee were critical of Ubisoft’s HR department.
Each Ubisoft studio has dedicated senior HR staff, and each project or game is assigned at least one HR rep. The former Paris employee said she could talk to neither HR nor her manager, because she felt both would protect the men who harassed her. She did not report the incidents described above to HR.
“The boys’ club was protected by Tommy,” she said, adding François was himself protected by other senior staff.
O’Hara said people in HR had protected male colleagues, which is why she did not report instances of harassment and assault to the company. She also told Business Insider she “already had to carry the trauma,” and did not wish to relive it. “Unless they get rid of HR leaders, directors, people that covered up … they are not going to be able to see real change.”
A third woman, who still works at the company, said she complained to HR about a manager who had commented on the clothes she wore, and discussed the appearance of other women.
The manager also pitted her professionally against other employees and told her she couldn’t be friends with certain colleagues, she said – it got to the point that she “couldn’t stand going to work.”
Her HR rep seemed, at first, incredibly helpful, but later she was told not to make “too much of a fuss,” she said.
Employees were encouraged not to discuss their issues with one another, she added.
Other current and former employees told Business Insider that complaints to HR about alleged harassment and toxicity resulted in no action. In a mail to staff on July 12, CEO Guillemot said the company needed to “strengthen our HR function, restructure it further and adapt to the new challenges of our industry.”
Official guidance could be part of the problem.
An Ubisoft HR document from 2019, distributed to employees in Canada and reviewed by Business Insider, said that the first response to sexual harassment should be to talk to the harasser, rather than to a manager or HR.
Anyone who witnesses harassment against a colleague should “discuss the matter directly with the people involved,” it said. It only recommends reporting the incident to a manager, or to HR, if the harassment “persists.”
The guidance also describes a scenario in which an employee gets “recurring jokes about my outfit from the team I work with. At first they made me laugh, but now they are slipping into sexist remarks and I’m starting to feel uncomfortable. What can I do?” The recommended course of action is to talk to the people making the comments “so everyone understands and respects your discomfort.” Employees should speak to their manager or HR if they are “not comfortable talking to the team directly.”
“Sexist jokes are not tolerated at Ubisoft,” it said.
Employees were asked to sign a package of HR guidance on anti-corruption, racism, and harassment that contained the document. One former employee, who worked in an Ubisoft Canada office for several years and said she had been “humiliated” by sexual jokes during a meeting, told Business Insider she refused to sign. “I didn’t, because I actually read it,” she said.
She called the departure of people like Hascoet a “great start, but only a start.” A former designer, who worked at the company in Paris for a decade, said Hascoet’s resignation showed that nobody is “untouchable,” but he feared “nothing will change in the long run.”
“Now Ubisoft needs to do a profound change to its systems, not just remove a few visible figures. Can they do it? I don’t know. Habits die hard,” he said.
The most optimistic member of staff Business Insider spoke to, a current employee, said the departure of Francois and Hascoet would solve “most of the toxic behaviours within the editorial” team and “send a global message about how to treat such incidents in the future, i.e. nobody is untouchable.”
But even she wondered how the company “will deal with current and past complaints. If the effort stops here, it would be a shame.”
“I guarantee you there will not be a single white man in those three hires”
Part of that effort will include hiring women in newly created senior roles, according to a source currently at the company, who wished to remain anonymous.
The tight-knit group of editorial vice presidents – who control the creative direction of the company’s games, and which previously included Maxime Beland – will grow from five to at least eight, and the shortlist for the roles is dominated by women, both from inside and outside the company, the source said. “I guarantee you there will not be a single white man in those three hires.”
Much of the responsibility for change, including new hires, will fall on the CEO’s shoulders.
But out of the dozen current and former employees Business Insider interviewed for this piece, many could not believe Yves Guillemot, who founded the company with his brothers in 1986, was oblivious to the toxic culture growing beneath him over three decades.
“In my 10 years in Ubisoft I have come to really like Yves … but he’s too nice and loyal with people who have been there since the beginning, and overlooks a lot of nasty things as a result,” the former Paris designer said.
Yves Guillemot did not respond to an interview request.
One current senior employee at Ubisoft’s Paris HQ, who wished to remain anonymous, told Business Insider that staff are split about Yves Guillemot’s sincerity. Most believe he genuinely wants change, and see Hascoet’s departure as support for that. Others don’t buy it. A third group thinks the recent wave of allegations are exaggerated. Many people don’t know what to believe, and are awaiting evidence of organizational change, the source said.
If Guillemot is fully on board, he will need to convince other senior staff.
One current editorial vice president said in a recent Facebook post, seen by Business Insider, that he was “enraged” by the recent Liberation article containing allegations of harassment – not, apparently, by the alleged actions of his colleagues, but by the framing of the article itself. “I have a pretty good grasp of the reality and the abject manipulation of the reality to garner clicks makes me want to vomit,” he wrote in a post on Facebook in French.
When contacted by Business Insider, he asked that his name not be published. He said he “might not” have known every detail about the case when he published the post, but did not express remorse at posting it.
Ubisoft declined to comment for this article, instead directing Business Insider to recent public statements. In the most recent, Yves Guillemot admitted that “Ubisoft has fallen short in its obligation to guarantee a safe and inclusive workplace environment for its employees.” The “toxic” behaviour at the company is “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,” he said.
It may take more than new hires and promises from Guillemot to change the culture at Ubisoft – and convince women that they are safe at the company.
Another former designer, who worked at Ubisoft’s Montreal office for several years in the mid-2000s and made multiple complaints about male colleagues’ behaviour to HR at the time, compared the recent departures of Hascoet and Mallat to the executions of two French monarchs in 1793. It was six years from their beheadings at the Place de la Concorde, 8km from Ubisoft’s Paris headquarters, to the end of the French Revolution. Changing Ubisoft may take just as long, she said.
Ubisoft has “chopped off Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s heads,” she said. “Of course they’re the root, but the next two layers… I don’t even know what they will do with that problem.”
Additional reporting by Shona Ghosh.
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