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A history of alleged widespread harassment at Activision Blizzard could be a headache for Microsoft and its $68.7 billion deal

February 9, 2022, 5:12 PM UTC

The word “culture” is often casually thrown about in corporate M&A announcements. Numbers and payouts often are de-emphasized (at least publicly) in favor of statements on how businesses were entirely aligned in vision and “a good cultural fit.” 

But there is enormous weight behind that single word. It points to people and their personalities, what they believe, and how they interact with one another; who is in charge and how they manage their reports; the way in which a whistleblower’s concerns are handled or ignored; or how women and people of color are treated when sitting at the table. It’s exactly that—the merging of two cultures—that can become one of the most significant roadblocks to a successful merger. And it may be this, not the Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust investigation, that could become Microsoft’s greatest challenge in its $68.7 billion acquisition of Activision Blizzard, the gaming company behind World of Warcraft and Overwatch.

A Fortune investigation, published this morning, details years of harassment where women say they were routinely belittled and discriminated against going back to the company’s early days. More than two dozen current or former Blizzard employees spoke with Fortune contributor Courtney Rubin for the story, describing a “hotness” spreadsheet that ranked new female hires and stated whether they were available or not, memories of being groped at company events, and being instructed to drink alcohol (“until I was blackout drunk,” according to one woman). Women reported rape and sex trafficking jokes.

Many of these concerns were raised in a California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) lawsuit in July 2021 that alleged that Activision Blizzard had paid women less, were in lower-level positions, were less likely to be promoted, and were subject to “constant sexual harassment,” among other grievances. (Activision denied “all allegations of wrongdoing,” and said it had agreed to the settlement with DFEH to avoid “the expense, distraction and possible litigation associated with such a dispute”.)

A major problem appears to be that these allegations weren’t properly addressed when brought to the attention of HR or management. Here’s an excerpt from Fortune’s story:

“Employees recount a revolving door of HR hires that made it hard to build up trust. And if HR did take action on complaints, according to some employees, it was often just to move the problem person to another team. There was rarely, if ever, a paper trail. If HR came back and said, as they did with one woman, ‘It’s a misunderstanding. We’ll talk to him,’ there was no proof that they did. [A former software engineer] says that after she posted about her experiences at Blizzard on Twitter, including negative encounters with HR, she heard similar stories from more than 300 employees and alums. Multiple women told Fortune that they didn’t feel they could trust the HR process and that speaking out might in fact be used against them.”

Microsoft gaming chief Phil Spencer has said that Activision Blizzard is making progress and told the Wall Street Journal that “we see the progress that they’re making that was pretty fundamental to us deciding to go forward here.” (Microsoft said last month it was reviewing its own sexual harassment and gender discrimination policies). Activision Blizzard did commit at the end of last year to launching a zero-tolerance harassment policy, upping the number of women and nonbinary people it employs, waiving required arbitration of sexual harassment and discrimination claims, and providing more regular updates to its progress.

Activision Blizzard told Fortune that “the Blizzard you portray from years past is not the Blizzard of today. Virtually no one you mention from Blizzard is still with the company, and the events and processes you highlight are not a reflection of today’s Blizzard—nor have they been for years. The leadership team at Blizzard is focused on creating the best possible environment for every member of our team. Across Activision Blizzard, our goal is to set an example for our industry with a truly safe and respectful workplace. Mr. Kotick is focused on ensuring that we live up to our values and aspirations without exception, and we are working hard to take the actions necessary to do so.”

Whether Activision’s culture has, indeed, changed—and what it looks like now—could play a major role in the success of Microsoft’s largest acquisition to-date. If the FTC gives the deal a green light, I suppose we’ll quickly start to find out.

Please note: Yesterday, I referred to Silver Lake as Silver Lake Capital. Please forgive my error.

See you tomorrow,

Jessica Mathews
Twitter: @jessicakmathews
Email: jessica.mathews@fortune.com

VENTURE DEALS

- Starburst, a Boston, Mass.-based analytics platform developer, raised $250 million in Series D funding led by Alkeon Capital and was joined by investors including Altimeter Capital, B Capital Group, Andreessen Horowitz, Coatue Management, Index Ventures, and Salesforce Ventures

- Compute North, an Eden Prairie, Minn.-based blockchain infrastructure and hosting services company, raised $85 million in Series C funding. Mercuria and Generate Capital co-led the round and were joined by investors including National Grid Partners.

- Quaise Energy, a Cambridge, Mass.-based mining and drilling technology developer, raised $40 million in Series A funding led by Safar Partners and was joined by investors including Prelude Ventures, Fine Structure Ventures, The Engine, Collaborative Fund, and Nabors Energy Transition Ventures.

- Leaf Logistics, a New York-based trucking logistics platform provider, raised $37 million in Series B funding led by Sozo Ventures and was joined by investors including Madrona Venture Group, Playground Global, Floodgate, Schematic Ventures, and Supply Chain Ventures

- Neo Cybernetica, a Boston-based cybernetics technology company, raised $30 million seed funding led by NEA and was joined by investors including B5 Capital, Cortical Ventures, and Open Field Capital.

- OpenNode, a Los Angeles-based Bitcoin payment processor and infrastructure provider, raised $20 million in Series A funding led by Kingsway and was joined by investors including Twitter, Draper Associates founder Tim Draper, and Avon Ventures.

- Trialjectory, a Stamford, Conn.-based healthcare platform for patients, health-care providers and pharma, raised $20 million in Series A funding led by Insight Partners and was joined by investors including JAL Ventures ,Contour Venture Partners, Rho Capital and TIA Ventures

- Boston Technology Research, a Boston-based regulatory technology company serving healthcare, life sciences and SaMD, raised $15 million in Series A funding led by Insight Partners and was joined by investors including LRV Health and NewStack Ventures.

- PopSQL, a San Francisco-based collaborative SQL editor for data teams, raised $14 million in Series A funding led by Tiger Global and was joined by investors including Gradient Ventures, Funders Club, and Y Combinator.  

- Parade, a San Francisco-based truckload capacity management platform for freight brokers, raised $12.7 million in Series A funding led by Menlo Ventures and was joined by investors including Greenhawk Capital and Jones Capital.

- Oloid, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based cloud-based identity and worker management platform, raised $12 million in Series A funding led by Dell Technologies Capital and was joined by investors including Honeywell Ventures and Okta Ventures.

- Splendid Spoon, a New York-based food delivery platform, raised $12 million in Series B funding led by Nicoya and was joined by investors including Torch Capital, Danone Manifesto Ventures, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, Rent the Runway co-founder Jennifer Fleiss, and others.

- Reveri Health, raised $1.8 million in seed funding led by InReach Ventures and was joined by investors including Background Capital, Bobby Lo, Joe Greenstein, Andrew Artz, Joseph Rubinsztain, and Eduardo Vilar

PRIVATE EQUITY

- Betterment, backed by Citi Ventures, Francisco Partners, and others, agreed to acquire Makara, a Seattle, Wash.-based cryptocurrency robo advisor. Financial terms were not disclosed.

- Element Biosciences, backed by Foresite Capital Management, Venrock, and Meritech Capital Partners, acquired Loop Genomics, a San Jose, Calif.-based long-read DNA sequencing technology company. Financial terms were not disclosed.

- JAGGAER, backed by Cinven, acquired DocSkiff, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based AI-powered contracts analysis platform. Financial terms were not disclosed.

- nThrive, backed by Clearlake Capital Group, agreed to acquire PELITAS, a Plano, Tex.-based health care patient access, digital patient intake, and front-end RCM software solutions provider. Financial terms of the transaction were not disclosed.

- Rave Mobile Safety, a TCV portfolio company, agreed to acquire AppArmor, a Toronto-based custom-branded mobile safety apps company. Financial terms were not disclosed. 

- Salt Creek Capital acquired All Metals Industries, a Belmont, N.H.-based carbon, aluminum, stainless and coated sheet/coil products distributor. Financial terms were not disclosed.

EXITS

- A.P. Moller-Maersk agreed to acquire Pilot Freight Services, a Glen Mills, Penn.-based transportation logistics and trucking company, for $1.68 billion from ATL Partners and British Columbia Investment Management.

OTHER

- Crain Communications acquired a 20% stake in Front Office Sports, a New York-based sports insight media company, per Bloomberg

IPOS

- Oldenburgische Landesbank, an Oldenburg, Germany-based commercial and corporate banking services company, is in talks with investment banks about a potential IPO, per Bloomberg. Apollo Global Management backs the firm.

- ALMAR, a Russian diamond miner, is planning to sell 15% of its shares in an IPO next month, according to Bloomberg.

FUNDS + FUNDS OF FUNDS

- OceanSound Partners, a New York-based private equity firm, raised $780 million for its first fund.

- LongWater Opportunities, a Dallas, Tex.-based private equity firm, raised $100 million for its third fund.

PEOPLE

- Financial Venture Studio, a San Francisco-based venture accelerator and firm, hired Cameron Peake as partner.

- Scale Venture Partners, a Foster City, Calif.-based early-stage enterprise software venture firm, promoted Jeremy Kaufmann to partner. 

- Sixth Street, a San Francisco-based private equity firm, hired Jennifer Doudna as Chief Science Advisor. She leads the Innovative Genomics Institute and the Doudna Lab at UC Berkeley.

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