“So this is it. This is going to be the thing.”
That’s what I remember thinking as I left the room where I had just finished a conversation with two female mentees.
I had wondered for some time when there would be an incident serious enough that I had to talk to leadership about unacceptable behavior in the workplace, and here it was.
At that point, I had been at Riot Games for a year. I loved my job there. Few companies have embraced what I do in the way Riot Games did. In the first six months, I had significantly reworked our approach to Agile development processes. I was told that leadership referred to me as the “Weapon of Mass Production.” (I must confess still being very fond of that moniker.) In early 2013 I was asked to establish the Product Management discipline, reporting directly to Riot President and Co-founder Marc Merrill. I worked with so many amazing and talented people there, and investing in their lives was deeply fulfilling to me.
However, the frequency and intensity of inappropriate behavior in the workplace had become a concern not long after I arrived. There were two predominant flavors of behavior. One was the use of sexual references and gestures by straight men toward other straight men, and the other was the sexist and inappropriate language about women. At that time, Riot was still a very young company made up of mostly very young people. I told myself that perhaps part of my calling in being at Riot at that point in time was to model more appropriate behavior and language and usher them into that next phase of maturity.
So, when people would say things to the group like “the other team raped us because our mid kept jungling,” I would attempt to reflect back more appropriate language by saying back to them “so you’re saying your team lost because you weren’t working together.” I can’t say that I think it had much impact, but I figured this was the long game, and slow and steady would win the race. Cultural change requires perseverance and consistency over a prolonged period of time, right?
The sexual references by straight men directly towards other straight men were a more complicated issue. It would often be homosexual in nature, but could also be sexually aggressive toward your significant other. You might be talking to a leader about conflict with a peer, and they’d respond with “man, you’re acting like he had sex with your wife.” Or they might start a paragraph by saying “Now for instance, if I fucked your wife…” and then segue into what they were actually supposed to be saying. The homosexual variants would be things like “well if he sucked your dick, would you feel better about this?” or “it’s not like I’m asking you to suck my dick, but I’d be OK with it if you did.”
This behavior of male-on-male aggression seemed to be a mechanism of asserting control. If you got rattled by it or responded angrily, you were seen as immature or insecure, and how could such a person be an effective Rioter, especially in a leadership role? So, the way a number of men coped with it was to not respond, and not appear provoked. Sadly, a very common coping mechanism that many men chose was to begin to exhibit the aggressive behavior themselves, often with greater intensity than they had seen it modeled. The net effect was that disagreement with the behavior was silenced, emulation of the behavior made it more prevalent, and the overall environment became fertile ground for sexism toward both men and women to run unchecked.
My personal preference was to respond with clarifying language while addressing them by their first name, and convey “can we just get through the conversation we need to have” non-verbally with my facial expressions and gestures. My hope in doing that was to communicate “what you are doing has no power over me, makes me think less of you, and now I am having to speak to you like an exasperated camp counselor.” The aggressive behavior was constant, often daily, and the need to counteract it really wore on me, though I think the drain I experienced as a straight white male was nothing compared to what others at Riot endured.
In late Spring of 2013, Nancy Hilpert had come in to lead Recruiting. She announced at one leadership meeting that Recruiting would be shutting down for 50 days in order to restructure and reboot itself. That reboot culminated in a full-day offsite held on a Friday. Approximately 160 people, all the hiring managers at Riot at the time, were brought together to learn about our new and revitalized approach to Talent Acquisition.
The Friday kicked off with an AMA with Brandon Beck and Marc Merrill, where they shared stories about how taking Talent Acquisition seriously since the early days had been key to Riot’s success. (For those who haven’t heard the term before, AMA stands for “ask me anything”, and it refers to a loosely-structured type of interview popularized by Reddit.) The two shared some great stories about candidates they pursued who were critical to getting League of Legends shipped in those first harrowing months of launching. Then they shared an example of how one candidate did not take an offer initially, but because we persevered and followed up, they eventually did take our offer. At the end of that example, Brandon laughed and said, “I was about to say something.” He paused, and then went on to say, “No doesn’t necessarily mean no.”
The next five to eight seconds seemed like minutes. The hall we were in was about three times wider than it was deep, and I was seated just right of center toward the front. Pockets of raucous laughter broke out distributed about the room among lots of silence. I looked to my left and locked eyes with my original hiring manager, and we shared a one-second look of “Did this just happen?” The AMA continued for a bit, and then we went into a day full of workshops. I told myself that it was probably just a misstep, because there was no way Brandon would purposely use rape as an analogy for persistence in recruiting, and it would just fade into the background.
However, at the end of the day, Nancy got up to give a recap with a slide deck. And there, in the recap, she had a slide with “no doesn’t necessarily mean no” on it, and she’s reiterating it as a slogan of sorts. At this point I am concerned, and also anxious. “I think I am going to have to say something. God, I don’t want to have to do this.” We dismissed and went to a happy hour in the hotel, and the offsite ended. That weekend, I debated whether this merited bringing the issue to leadership. Was it that bad? I mean, it was bad, but was it bad enough for me to put myself at risk by saying something?
Back at Riot headquarters the following Monday, the Recruiting team held an onsite event where some of the offsite event resources and guidance were shared with all of Riot, since the offsite was just for hiring managers.
The next day, one of my former direct reports and her direct report, both of whom I was actively mentoring, asked to speak with me as soon as I could. We met up right away, and they were visibly upset. One of them said to me, “There’s a rape joke in some of the recruiting material, and they’re saying it’s something that Brandon said at the offsite. Is that true? Did he say that?”
I think I took a deep breath, followed by a long sigh. It was a simple question, with a simple answer, but with that answer came grave implications.
“Yeah, he did.”
Seeing their hurt and concern, I felt mad at myself for not having said anything yet. I knew it was not OK, I knew it would have this effect, and I had delayed saying anything. My “thinking it over” was really me wavering on whether I would do what I knew was right, because I feared the repercussions. “I’m going to say something to Brandon, I just need to figure out how to say it.” We got up, and quietly shuffled out the door.
“So this is it. This is going to be the thing.”
The morning of August 1st, 2013 I received a call from my mother to inform me that the youngest of my aunts died unexpectedly. She was only 8 years older than me, so she was more like a big sister or cousin. It was a bit of a blow.
I was about to travel cross-country for the funeral, and the company-wide trip to the Dominican Republic was coming up in a week. Back then, getting on Marc or Brandon’s calendar for 30 minutes could easily take two weeks. If I didn’t do something soon, this would be delayed for weeks.
The next day, I crafted as diplomatic an email to Brandon as I could muster. I wrote that I doubt he meant it that way, but that people took the “no doesn’t necessarily mean no” as a rape joke, and how it really became a problem once Nancy baked it into the material. I went on to say that I knew we didn’t want to convey that message, and was happy to talk about it if he wanted.
I will never forget changing planes in San Francisco the following Monday. I pulled out my phone to check email, and found replies to the email I sent Brandon, but not only him. My original email had apparently become a thread with some folks in leadership. I recall it mentioning that hyper-sensitive people who didn’t understand intent were a problem we needed to address at Riot. I closed that email thread, and immediately below it there was a meeting invite titled “Riot Voice and Sense of Humor” set for when everyone returned from the company trip. The invite included the co-founders Marc (my boss) and Brandon, the head of Communications, the head of Legal, and myself.
The meeting began with me being asked to tell everyone what I think happened. I said something like, “the day began, the AMA happened, Brandon said the ‘no doesn’t necessarily mean no’ thing, we had the rest of the day, Nancy put that in the deck, and we all went to Happy Hour.”
At some point I think I referred to the slogan as a rape joke. Brandon pulled up a picture of a t-shirt that had an iceberg floating in water on it with the words “just the tip”, and said he had that t-shirt, and what did I think of it. I said I didn’t think it was appropriate. This led to a bit of back and forth between Marc, Brandon, and I, followed by Brandon talking for several minutes. I think Brandon felt misunderstood and misinterpreted, and that my email implied that I thought he condoned rape. After he had talked for several minutes, Marc said, “So what do you think about what he said?” I replied, “I think he thinks these sorts of things are OK and I don’t.”
That led to more of Brandon talking about not supporting rape, and also about our culture and having a sense of humor. After he had talked for a good long while, Marc again asked what I thought about what Brandon had said. I answered that as a white male I thought they had gotten all the insight they could get from me, and if they wanted more, they should ask the women who were there. I recall that not going over well.
Brandon again spoke for a long while, and Marc again asked what I thought. At this point, a pattern was emerging. Brandon would speak, Marc would ask what I thought, and I would respond in disagreement, and the pattern would repeat. I said, “Well, we’ve heard a lot from me, but we have the head of Communications and the head of Legal here. I think it would be interesting to hear their thoughts on this.”
Up until that point, neither of those people had said much at all. The head of Communications said that we were edgy, and that if we as Riot started chipping away those edges, we would become shapeless and bland, like EA or Blizzard. I responded that if we told everyone starting today there could be no more rape jokes in presentations and talks, it would still be a multi-year effort for us to no longer be edgy.
I remember trying to appeal to the business aspects of the behavior, and how it opened us up to legal liability. The head of Legal did speak up and asked if we were concerned about legal liability. She was seated to my left, and I was seated on Brandon’s left, where he was at the head of table. Brandon extended his arm past me and held up his hand in front of her and hushed her, saying we were not going to talk about that.
That was pretty uncomfortable.
There was more talk about culture and some people being too sensitive. The head of Legal spoke up again, saying that it wasn’t that hearing guys say the stupid stuff they did all day made her sad or upset, it just made her want to punch them in the throat because she was sick of having to hear it all the time. I really liked that part.
After a bit more talking, I was asked what I thought. At that point I told the group it seemed like this was supposed to be some form of corporate reformative therapy, where they kept repeating stuff then asking me if I agree until I eventually do, but I knew how I felt about it, and it wasn’t going to change.
By then, this 30-minute meeting was approaching one hour. I think everyone was pretty frustrated. We wrapped it up abruptly, and Brandon thanked me for speaking up because he was sure it wasn’t easy, and shook my hand. I asked them how many other people had raised this concern, and they said I was the only one. I told them that was something to be concerned about, because I was not the only one in those original 160 people who had a problem with it.
As we walked out of the room, the head of Legal stopped me and said to tell the women that came to me that they could contact her to talk. I replied, “Based on what just happened in there, there’s no way I would recommend they talk to you.”
Not long after I got back to my desk, I had a new meeting invite for an hour with Marc the next day. I took it as my first sign that the meeting did not go over well.
I was feeling quite rattled, so I pulled aside a confidant who was a Riot veteran since launch and told him about the email I sent and the meeting. Watching his face I as I told him, I could tell this was pretty serious. He calmly asked me, “How concerned are you about your career and future here?” I replied, “Well, quite a bit, but not enough to compromise my principles on this issue.” He advised me to recant what I said, and that if I did not, there was likely both a ceiling and probably a wall to my career progression at Riot. I was thankful that he was willing to give me that unvarnished assessment.
In the next-day meeting with Marc, he shared that leadership was not convinced that I was fully bought in, and that they had put a great deal of trust in me with the opportunities I had been given. I told him that if moving my young family across the country, away from everything we knew, and pouring myself into Riot counts as bought in, then yes, I was. But if being bought in meant that I had to have the same sense of humor that they did, then maybe I wasn’t bought in. It was a good talk, and he was very understanding as we talked through the situation.
Outside of those two meetings, no one else ever talked to me about that incident, including people I was close to who were on that email thread based on my email to Brandon. I had the strong impression that the incident was something we were never to speak of again. However, things clearly changed and began to get a bit weird. I realized my future at Riot was now limited and would need to start looking for something else. I found an email I sent a few weeks after the meetings:
Things continue to be precarious and dissonant in my current role. The big issue I had mentioned has been sort of swept over, with the (unspoken) caveat that I am on "culture fit" watch. There are a number of folks on the floor who could really turn things around, but I'm not sure they'll be listened to and not be overruled by leadership whim.
On a personal level, I feel very alone and "unsafe" at work, having to watch what I say around whom and always be filtering what I say based on how it might be misinterpreted or misused.
A Martin Fowler saying I am fond of is “You can change your organization, or change your organization.” I concluded that I was not going to be able to effectively impact the issues with the culture at Riot, and my first significant attempt at raising concerns had put my job in jeopardy. That was painful to accept, because it meant leaving such great work with so many great people. I chose to leave quietly in February 2014, and not publicly state why I left.
For the many dear people I left behind at Riot, I feel a bit of closure for you to know that I did not leave you all simply because a better opportunity came along. It grieved me to not tell you that I left because of these issues. Know that I missed you all very much, and I have watched your career from a distance, delighted to see so many of you continue to grow and excel.
The Stark Landscape of Today
Cecilia D’Anastasio’s Kotaku article “Inside the Culture of Sexism at Riot Games” appeared in my feed the morning after it published. Reading it, all the old pain and memories came back as if my experience had just happened. I was not involved with the article, but within hours I began receiving messages asking if I was a source. I spent years making myself move on from that loss, and my wife and I resigned ourselves to having paid a steep price for speaking up, with no impact on the situation at Riot, and with only a handful of people sharing that secret with us.
A narrative in my head the last few years has been that the sexist environment at Riot would eventually lead to an issue bad enough that things would be turned around. From what I read in the article, and in the stories of women who have spoken out about what happened to them, I see that I was far too optimistic.
The last two weeks have been an exhausting re-engagement in the narrative surrounding Riot’s trail of sexism-related issues. I am hopeful that the stories that have come to light will lead to permanent, significant change at Riot. I believe it could still become a great place to work. At one point a few years back, I even spoke with Riot about possibly returning, but it was not meant to be. There are many good people there, and I believe they have it in them to overcome this challenge, but it will have to begin with leadership.
I do not think that much of leadership would actively condone sexism and the mistreatment of women. However, when confronted with what they would need to change about their behavior to prevent an environment that nurtures sexism and mistreatment of women, they have an established record of being unwilling to make those changes.
The third core value of the Riot Manifesto is “Focus on Talent & Team.” Women are a big part of that team. In light of all the painful stories that have emerged, it seems Riot still has an environment where women are made to feel unsafe and can be treated in awful ways with little to no consequence for those who mistreat them. A lack of focus on part of the team is a failure to focus on the team. I wish Riot the best in their journey to make it a better place.
And if they don’t, as Martin Fowler says, “Change your organization, or change your organization.”