Sexual harassment at Ubisoft: “We knew”

Translation of Libération’s last investigation about the sexual misconduct scandal at Ubisoft. Original article can be found here (via a subscription).

[Translator’s note: all names have been changed on demand]


By Erwan Cario and Marius Chapuis – July 10th 2020

Setting up a crisis unit after being accused in “Libération” didn’t prevent more testimonies to emerge; their numbers are only rising, depicting the toxicity inside the video game company. Many of them point to Ubisoft’s second executive, Serge Hascoët.

Ten days after our first investigation on Ubisoft, Libération tried solve the mystery behind this “HR wall”. A wall against which all the victims’ reports about sexual and moral harassment went crashing, hiding misconducts at the highest levels of the company. According to anonymous reports initiated by Ubisoft after the crisis, Serge Hascoët has been revealed as the man behind all this systemic abuse policy. The spotlights are now on him, Ubisoft’s second in command and creative guru of the company. The man credited for star franchises like Assassin’s Creed and Watch_Dogs has “the most toxic behavior of the whole company”, says a source in HR headquarters.

“He’s smart because he navigates on a thin line. Everyone knows, that’s why he’s known, and valued for.”

Ubisoft’s crisis unit, in Montreuil, 3rd of July.
After a meeting with the big boss of HR, Romane, a high ranking employee from Ubisoft believes the answer won’t suffice compared to the importance of the crisis.

“I got out of this meeting with the impression that we’re going in the wrong direction”, she says. “Cécile Cornet was here to make excuses for the HR. This meeting included all the services that are supposed to help build a safe work environment, diversity, inclusion… And we were just being told that we need to be absolved. What I understand is that Ubisoft is going to punish a few people, the most visible ones, so they look good from the outside. But the main goal is to save all the toxic people whose name hasn’t been revealed as strongly.” The deadline is also clear: the management hope we won’t talk about Ubisoft’s scandal on the outside a week from now.  

The crisis unit has been set up on June 22nd, after a wave of accusations of sexual harassment and aggressions on twitter against high ranked members of Ubisoft – and it’s only becoming bigger. It became even more important after the publication in Libération of an investigation shedding light on the toxic culture in the Edito department. This service is the pride of the company, and it hides a boy’s club gathered around one of its iconic vice presidents, Tommy François.

“As women, we’ve become a threat.”

This man has been accused of sexual and moral harassment, and sexual assault by numerous people in our investigation. He has been protected by his status as a right-hand man of Serge Hascoët, the creative lead at Ubisoft, the man who decides the fate of every single project of the company. He has also been protected by the HR wall against which every victim collided to: every report was answered with “they’re creative, that’s how they work” or “if you cannot work with him, maybe it’s time you leave.”

Inside Ubisoft, revealing the extent of this toxic behavior had two different effects on the employees. On one side, hostility; a woman who has been working there for years explains: “Your revelations made it worse. The reactions in production studios are extreme. All the managers were told to talk to the employees, but they only do it because they’re told to. They’re convinced it might harm their freedom and call it a ‘witch hunt’. And now, as women, we became a threat. It’s far from being easy.”

Other side are employees who don’t have faith in the ongoing “cleaning” operation and make their opinion known on Mana, the social network of the enterprise. One of them rants on his own behalf:

“After reading those articles, I want nothing less than Serge Hascoët’s firing or resignation and same goes for [the HR head] Cécile Cornet. I cannot see any other morally suitable option.”

A Ubisoft employee on their social network, Mana.

Another says: “When facing a tragedy, Ubisoft fails to react with humanity […] I expected better than a generic and impersonal answer to all this pain, this anger and fear we’ve been expressing those last weeks.”

Over a hundred reports

There’s a deep split even in the HR department as a whole, as the company’s different entities are rooted in 30 different countries, with a total of 18,000 employees. During a video conference, 90 heads of HR departments heard a “grotesque” statement, as described by one of our witnesses:
“The head of the HR in Montreal came up and said: ‘those articles are unfair, and if Yves [Guillemot, CEO] doesn’t make a public statement to exonerate the HR, I’m leaving Ubi with half of my team”,  says Romane. “And after him, all his lieutenants vocally confirmed saying ‘I agree’ one after the other.”
The huge studio in Montréal is also at the center of allegations of sexual misconduct. The Québécois newspaper “La Presse” reported several problems similar to the cases from Paris’ headquarters. “It was insane”, says Romane. “Our discussions became weirder as many HR staff were playing the victim card. Even if we can say not all HR departments are guilty of hiding toxic behavior, it doesn’t mean it’s not a collective failure.”

In a letter sent to his employees last week, Yves Guillemot, CEO, promised to revise the composition of the editorial team and to transform the HR processes. The first actual element to come out of this crisis management is a new system to gather the testimonies of harassment and aggression.

“This tool named Whispli has been used at Ubisoft since 2018 to report any case of corruption”, says Eve, a former employee. “Back then, we already recommended to use it to also report sexual harassment and discriminations but the lead HR [Cécile Cornet] explicitly refused, as she was afraid of a big unpacking.”

The tool features a system of alert via email; it sends a message to the crisis unit named “Respect at Ubisoft” which is now flooded with more than a hundred reports today. For some people, the unit uses the term “ambience harassment”, which can look suspicious at first sight.

“It’s not a term we use to cover or hide facts, it’s the opposite,” says Catherine, a member of the Respect unit. “We were submerged by alerts sent by women who work as the only female employee in a man’s team and see their coworkers watching porn or exhibiting porn pictures. It doesn’t target anyone specifically, but this culture of male domination is de facto wearing on them and makes them feel harassed. We needed that term of ambience harassment to avoid minimizing those situations.”

Tatiana, a member of HR who was able to search through the testimonies, tells us that most cases have already been reported before to the HR. “It really shows that HR is the silencing tool of Ubisoft,” she says. A fourth of the reports targets and names Serge Hascoët, the creative lead, or the Edito department he’s in charge of.

Dog growls in front of women

In a portrait in “Le Monde” in 2017, Serge Hascoët was described as a “creative enjoyer” (Translator’s note: it’s a French pun on the word who means “enjoy” as well as “come”, in the sexual way). He’s the one who took an editorial turn at the beginning of the 2000’s and turned a family business into a key player in the sector. The least violent portrait we got in all the testimonies we gathered in those two investigations comes from a former assistant. “He’s an angry diva who wants all his needs fulfilled instantly even if it means finding a couscous for 30 persons in 15 minutes.”
On the inside, the reports draw a much darker portrait. “According to the alerts, Serge hasn’t sexually assaulted anyone”, said a source in headquarters’ HR. “But he’s the one who allowed all this toxic culture. Everybody knows it, everybody knows him for that. He’s valued for his toxicity, his misogyny, his homophobia, his methods of management, how he crushes other people. He’s known for his permanent libidinous behavior. And yet today people still minimize the whole thing by saying he’s a creative person.”

Romane is worried to see that despite all evidence, Serge Hascoët isn’t subject to inspection. She protests: “We knew about Serge. The Christmas party story when Tommy François tried to coerce a female employee into kissing him went all the way up to HR through a survey we make every two years. Serge witnessed the scene and it made him laugh.”
His very personal way of using illegal substances is also a recurring element in the testimonies. “Serge apparently unknowingly drugged his employees, including top management, by giving them space cakes.”

Another element emerging is an anger outburst against a VP – who’s now sitting at the Respect unit – after she demanded lunch with him, a few years ago. People at the Edito department confirmed a testimony we got 10 days ago.

“Serge was surrounded by his VP, and said this “badly fucked woman” was hindering his creativity and that she needed to have her mind expanded with a “strong fucking in the ass” and “make her take turns until she understands”.

Tatiana then proceeds to make a listing of all the horrors she saw on the report tool. “During meetings, he make people sit to have one woman/one man before whispering to his manager “oulah, there’s a sexual tension here. Something must be done before the meeting ends.”
At a work dinner, he pushes creative directors to drink alcohol until they’re sick. Then he asks the waitress to get all the bottles of the restaurant – on the money of the company, of course – and yells: “you’re a faggot if you don’t drink!”
Witnesses also report how he growled like a dog, many times, in front of women, as a dozen alerts confirm. “He trapped a woman in the elevator, and put himself against her, making growling noises as he looked her in the eyes. Other lieutenants of the Edito did the same, to the point that it became their signature move,” says Tatiana.

“Positive washing” is established as an absolute dogma.

The wall of HR protecting Serge Hascoët against his victims’ report seems to blend into a “positive washing” dogma. “At Ubisoft, we’d rather bury everything, wait for it to slow down, and for everyone to make peace in the end,” says Eve, ironically.

One of the greatest examples of this insane positive attitude is also one of Ubisoft’s greatest missed opportunities. In 2015, the management decided to make a code of good conduct to standardize the behavior in the company: a first in the gaming industry. An ambitious hazard map, at first.

“But every time, the HR leads edited the redactors’ work, softening it all in the fear of engaging the company’s responsibility. You couldn’t state exact sanctions. Concerning sexual harassment, it was excluded to mention the case of a harassing manager, because it was too pessimistic, and employees would think it might happen”, explains Sergio, who was on the front line at the time. “They deliberately used that positive doctrine to hide everything. Every problem had to be brought to the HR because we could deal with it between us. This code allowed this culture to sustain.”

“Everyone keeps repeating that working at Ubi is awesome, so if you don’t agree, you almost feel like a traitor”, says Sonya, a former employee in Edito’s HR. The Human Resource lead team in Montreuil has been working as a team for more than 20 years and celebrates “Ubiversaries” live in a cult of the conductor and of the older ones. And more importantly, they must be seen as strong with the weak, and weak with the strong.” The weak are not only the victims coming to report an issue, but also the lower-ranked employees who have to deal with strong turn-overs and an intense work pace.
“After six months in this service, I was on medical leave, exhausted by the workload”, says Clémentine. “The worst part was coming back. My N+1 and N+2 decided I was the problem and six months later, I was out of Ubisoft.”

Another one, Elizabeth, recruited by Ubisoft fresh out of school, was happy to get a permanent contract. But she didn’t feel happy for long, as she discovered her manager’s brutal methods. “It went so wrong that I quickly had to focus on my own survival. I feel bad that I actually belonged to this team, to this toxic culture where people gave nicknames to employees during meetings. An eccentric game designer was, for instance, named ‘the retard’…”
In the examples she gives us, we find the name of one of the victims mentioned in our first investigation, described as “a debauched lunatic we shouldn’t pay attention to”. “Basically, every single time something was derailing, the goal was to make the person look like a freak.”

An electroshock and a “#MeToo moment”

“The people in charge of welcoming employees and handling their careers in the company are not trained to deal with harassment”, says Catherine. “They don’t know how to collect the victims’ testimonies. But what is even worse than that, is that they were never told to care for people instead of caring about business. Never, ever. Ever. At Ubisoft, what matters is that games must be released in due time.”
This logic also grants special privileges to what the company refers to as “talents”:s those remarkable people that need to be kept inside Ubisoft at all cost. In may 2017, in front of every work council of Ubisoft, Yves Guillemot was asked about a complicated cohabitation with one of their “stars”, Michel Ancel, Rayman’s creator, who was also granted preferential treatment. In an internal document we managed to read, the CEO answered: “A man of this caliber can change what people think of Ubisoft […] Michel Ancel has a star status like a few others, and that is very hard to change. It’s up to the staff representatives to find the means to protect the people who work with him.”
This sense of priority was detailed more bluntly by one of our sources, who explains that the lead HR, Cécile Cornet, stated that “Yves is OK with a toxic management, as long as these managers’ results exceed their toxicity level.”

She was interrogated in January by her teams, and she specified that Ubisoft “is a company that grants second chances, or a third, or even more, as long as its employees are successful.”

An immunity that might come to an end. Even though Ubisoft took only three sanctions against its highest ranked executives (including Tommy François, who was laid off), Catherine confirms that at least 20 people will be investigated by external lawyer firms. “A great deal of those investigations should lead to firings, because we only launch the procedure when we have a strong case.”

We contacted Ubisoft, Serge Hascoët and Cécile Cornet, but none of them answered our questions.

Don’t withhold any information, I want to know about every single case

Yves Guillemot, Ubisoft’s CEO

Another witness who’s very aware of the crisis management says the whole thing was an electroshock. “Yves told his team not to withhold any case, and that he wanted to know about every single situation, when CEOs usually say the opposite; usually, it’s more of a “don’t tell me, I don’t want to be forced to resign.” This is a real wake-up call. Many people in the upper management are losing their landmarks. They are so disconnected from the base that for them, the entire ideological landscape has suddenly changed. It really is a #MeToo moment because it’s not only a sum of individual stories, but a shift of values, of what is acceptable, and what isn’t anymore.


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Un grand “merci” to my friend Paul who proofread all that!

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