This is my translation of an article by French newspaper “Libération”. The original article can be found here.
curious, two years after #MeToo, for a video game company on top of its game,
one of the most innovative, one that’s deeply connected to societal issues, to
be unable to grasp the feeling of an era?
According to the testimonies gathered by our journalists, Ubisoft – the third
biggest video game company in the world – lets an atmosphere of male chauvinism
thrive, where sexual harassment – and in certain
cases sexual assault – is common. Is it seen as
inappropriate jokes? Harmless verbal misconduct? Schoolboy humor that needs to
be put into perspective to avoid “self-righteous inquisition ?”
Our investigation shows quite the opposite, even if one of the men who has been accused denies all charges. Let’s see the legal definition of sexual harassment: “repeatedly impose sexually connoted words or behavior that undermine a person’s dignity due to their degrading or humiliating character, or create an intimidating, hostile or offending situation.” Anyone who reads our investigation will note that those are the facts described by these women – or men – who testified.
It displays a male chauvinism in the facts, one may think this would have been corrected or would have disappeared, at least in the “trending” companies. At this point, none of the women pressed charges. They’re afraid it would make their situations even worse; the conflict is internal. One may hope that the company will make an investigation, as promised. For the defendants, it’s clear that they have to answer in a court who then will have to settle between allegations and disclaimer.
Note: all the witnesses changed their names.
Stories of harassment and sexual assault at Ubisoft: “video games are fun, you can do anything, nothing is serious.”
By Erwan Cario and Marius Chapuis – July 1st 2020, 8:31PM.
Libération (Translator note: or “Libé”, name of the newspaper) gathered around twenty testimonies describing a toxic system within the 3rd biggest studio in the industry, dominated by untouchable men, protected by “a wall of HR.”
“There are men in positions of power who can afford to do whatever they want and who must be removed from the company, because they hurt women. And there’s a whole global system around that, which allows it to happen and protects them, preventing any recourse to HR. A system that make people powerless because anyway, video games are fun, we have a blast, we can do anything, say anything, because nothing is serious.”
A few days later, the #MeToo movement in the video game industry finally caught up to the French video game companies’ flagship, Ubisoft. After a dozen high ranked managers have been accused of harassment or sexual assault, a former employee made a whole different statement from the CEO Yves Guillemot’s, who sent this message to his 15000 employees:
“I am profoundly affected by what I have been reading the past few days on Mana. I would like to express my deep solidarity to all those who have been directly hurt and assure you that I will personally follow each of the situations that have been reported. These actions are in total contradiction with our values and with what I want for Ubisoft.”
The allegations, which were focused on Ubisoft’s American, Canadian and German studios are suddenly closing in on the headquarters of the video game flagship, in Paris. This is just in: according to Bloomberg, Tommy François, the vice president of the editorial team, on top of the pyramid, has just been put on administrative leave.
After reviewing around 20 testimonies of former and current Ubisoft employees, it appears that Tommy François is a toxic puppeteer, preying on both women and men with complete impunity despite several reports and incidents. He’s described as a predator at the head of a service turned into a boy’s club, protected by his status of right-hand man to Serge Hascoët, the creative boss, the man who’s intuitions turned a familial company into the world third biggest video game editor, the backbone of all of Ubisoft’s strategy. A company who publicly displays their progressive and human values… Which their “talent” apparently don’t share, and yet they want them to remain with the studio at all cost. It goes all the way down to testing their future employees’ tolerance threshold to “an environment of manly jokes, sometimes really bad or a bit sexist”. To the point where they cover up the indefensible ?
Tommy François, a former star journalist from the video game channel Game One, started working at Ubisoft in 2006 in the editorial service, the pride of the company. The company specific “Edito” is the control tower which initiates, validates or sanctions any project of video game development from all the various studios in the group. He’s a French American 46 years old man who was promoted to vice-president in 2015 due to his talents as a speaker. He’s one of the public figures of the company, and was even given the spotlights during E3 conferences, the biggest video game event in the year where the future of star franchise like Assassin’s Creed, The Rabbids, Rayman, Just Dance and others are disclosed. Wearing shorts, sneakers and a fancy hat, Tommy François clashes with the usual “top managers” look, parading in Colombia around the army and drug dealers to give a million dollar shooter game an even more realistic touch.
Before they speak of their current or past experience at Ubisoft, every witness asked not only to be protected by anonymity, but also to avoid being able to be tracked internally by a number of positions in the company. Once this request has been made (several times), they start talking about Tommy François. A big, loud man, who crosses the open space on the sixth floor of the Rue de Lagny in Montreuil. It’s a “hen house”, a bombed out workspace where “everybody can hear and see anything”, as we’re being told. “On this floor, his team was particularly loud. The male team stereotype with props, weapons, posters.” explains Cassandra (name changed), a former Edito employee. “Tommy is a kid, he talks in a rude way but he has that nice guy touch, the kind of guy who’d make a water balloon fight with his colleagues.” also explains another former Editorial Creative Services (ECS) employee, where Tommy François works. A third witness, Max, also explains: “He’s the kind of person who will play ‘chat-bite’ (translator note: a French game where you play tag on other people’s genitals) with his co-workers or write with a black pen on the trainee’s arms.”
He is also presented as very charismatic, “very animal”. A shifting personality who can “switch between laugh and raw anger.”
Every witness concurs to describe a man
who’s incapable of interacting with a woman without making sexual talk. “During my years there, there hasn’t
been a day without a remark about my hair, my clothes, my attitude… From
Tommy or his team. If I ever came with some toothpaste stain on my mouth, Tommy
would ask whose cock I had sucked… The craziest part being that he would do
it overtly, in front of everyone.” adds Cassandra. “One summer, a female co-worker came in
wearing a dress and he just said out loud “oh, excuse me, I have to go
masturbate!” explains Max. “He
also suggested to another woman, who was also wearing a dress, that she should
do a headstand. Many women also told me he would often sneak behind them and
ask them “can you feel it ?”.
“What is very perverse is that we’re in a cool culture. Everything is just a joke. We shouldn’t take it the wrong way.”
Like they shouldn’t be upset over the catcalling in the office or wandering hands.
All the women also agree on those looks he gave them: “sexual looks, extended gazes. All the time. When he greets you (translator note: a kiss on each cheek, the French way) he just lingers. There is no other word. It’s disgusting.” says Alice, who worked on the same floor. “So we stress, we think we shouldn’t look too cute when we cross the open space”. Unsurprisingly, women are a minority in Ubisoft’s ranks, barely 22% of the workforce, which mirrors the industry itself, a very male oriented business in both production and direction. Around Tommy François, a large part of the service is depicted as a wolf pack. “At ECS, most managers are very close friends, lifelong friends, they act like his own bodyguard crew.” explains Juliette, still working there. A former member of the boy’s club admits the jokes had poor taste, and tries to justify themselves saying “you had to play along, in this jokers’ court. You were either part of the crew, or out of the crew.” A behavior that would make any American frat house proud, and heavily wears on women. Many of them remember meeting their coworkers in the ladies restrooms, crying, comforting each other, saying all of it would be behind them at some point. “I realized it was sexual harassment when I heard of the Baupin’s case‘s testimonies.” (translator’s note: vice president of the French national assembly who was accused of sexual harassment) explains Cassandra, who resigned a moment later. What makes the situation even worse and difficult to apprehend for them is that those women are passionate about video games: getting hired by Ubisoft is an achievement. So they tank it.
The whole sexual harassment process is still a classic move. Sarah, a young low-ranked employee tells us how she got the creative VP sitting next to her everyday to talk about nothing and everything, even if she was already in the middle of a conversation. Then he invited her to lunch repeatedly, even if she never responded. And finally, she got a warning from her colleagues from another French Ubisoft studio. “Be careful, Tommy asked me several times on Skype if you were coming to Saturday’s party.” She spent said party trying to avoid being on her own. But Tommy François still came to her forcefully until he trapped her against the bar. Her colleagues bailed her out.
“Everyone at Ubi will tell you about the Christmas party. There’s a lot of drama here.” explains Max. Christmas party is a yearly event organized by Ubisoft who will pay for the accommodation of all of its French employees, with free alcohol. “It was my first Christmas party” says a young man, “I noticed Tommy, he was kind of a legend at the time, he was serious, but fun. He was drunk and started talking to us about his trips, etc. Then he offered to have a little bit of fun, poking his nose. He had this really negative energy, we tried to escape him but he was following us. Before we left, he grabbed our buttocks and went away, smiling. It was really creepy.”
Another woman, Louise, brings an even more compelling testimony. In December 2015, the theme of the party was Back to the Future. For once, she was wearing a dress. Tommy François – her superior at the time – apparently tried to force her to kiss him, while other members of his team held her down, restraining her movement. She fought, yelled and managed to get out. Traumatized by the experience, she told her story to another manager of the company the next day and she was told that she misinterpreted the his acts, that it’s just another joke, something he does often.
Whatever he does, whether it’s legally defined as sexual harassment or assault, nothing seems to bear any consequence; a man with unlimited power. The victims always come across someone who will excuse Tommy François’s behavior. “Everyone protected him.” is a sentence we hear in every single testimony with a terrifying regularity. From men and women, ex and current employees alike.
“In this extremely toxic environment, Tommy is the conductor, but not the only one who must be held accountable. The problem is in the whole system that allows people like him to have power and to use it.” says Cassandra. “The problem is that year after year, he has been promoted, valued in public, and treated completely differently from any other person with the same rank. It’s a system of impunity, privileges. In this system, being a woman is being at the lowest rank.”
Tommy François has been contacted by Libé and answered in a text, through his lawyer Jérémie Assous, and “obviously denies the whole set of accusations that have been recklessly relayed in the news”. He goes on: “we encourage any alleged victims of our alleged behavior to report to the authorities. Any complaints of that sort would thus allow said authorities to confirm or deny their authenticity and allow us to answer and prove them wrong.”
Another thing we get a lot is that he is indeed untouchable, due to being close to Serge Hascoët, Ubisoft’s creative director for twenty years. Hascoët oversees the whole editorial strategy of the company and no project can be created or pursued without his blessing. He’s a backbone whose right-hand men necessarily become very powerful. We’re also told that among all the VP, Tommy François is his favorite, to the point where he is called “the king’s jester.” He’s a close friend to Hascoët with whom he shares vacations and parties. Some say they’re the closest friends, others bring a touch of nuance to their relationship: “Serge and Tommy are not the Daltons. They’re not brothers. There’s a real relation of power between them”, explains a former Edito employee.
“Tommy is Serge’s fixer, when something is wrong, he pushes a button, Tommy pops up and says OK, OK, and then he goes full The West Wing mode. Music speeds up, everybody talks really quickly in the hallways, and Tommy finds the good person to fix the problem.” With his own gab, the VP is a good complement to the big boss who hates public relations and doesn’t speak English very well. In an audio document Libé managed to get, Tommy François points to his privileged relationship: “I’m here to make it easy for Serge, and enforce his priorities, and that’s it.” They are so close, some call Serge Hascoët the “president of the boy’s club”. Louise remembers being embarrassed when Tommy François or Serge Hascoët came to her to talk about sex toys or ask her if she knew about ocytocin, the hormone of feminine pleasure.
A third part of this duo is M.B., Hascoët’s former personal assistant. Another man known to abuse the power his relationship with the creative director gave him. He said things like “Where will we make love ? In the meeting room ? Did you plan it in your agenda?” to a female colleague who needs him for budget validation. He also has the habit of invading his employees’ personal space, sitting on their chairs, stroking their hair, arms or buttocks.
One night, she says, he just grabbed the face of a female coworker who stayed in office late, and forced her to kiss him, without her consent. There was an awkward moment when he realized another man also stayed late and saw them. M.B. went kissing the man as well, in an attempt to de-escalate the situation with humor. “Tommy and M.B. were very close, like accomplices. They would go to lunch together with female trainees, you could always find them downstairs, chatting with girls.”
M.B.’s made a living hell of his own trainee’s experience, as she tells us. He explains his sexual intercourses in detail, offers her a “more feminine” relooking, prevents her from using the elevator because “she could use a bit of exercise” and pretends he can introduce her to Hascoët in exchange for sexual favors. One day, in spring 2015, she tells him she’s done with his behavior in a heated conversation. He threatens her with a little knife and she runs in the restrooms. In the meantime, male colleagues message her to tell her to keep it quiet. Later, a senior officer told her she should have understood by herself that M.B.’s behavior was “toxic”. A nth incident with no repercussions. Despite his reputation, M.B. is later sent to the Production team, a few streets away. He then leaves the company in 2018.
According to the witnesses when the harassment and assaults become too visible, a two-tiers system gets in motion. A former staff representative thought the system was working after seeing somebody getting sanctions over sexist remarks. But for the “talents” of the company, it’s a whole other thing. They are “at the heart of the value creation in the video game industry”, according to the financial report from Yves Guillemot, CEO, in 2019. Any other corporation would love to have those creative leaders, and they must remain at Ubisoft at all cost.
“The HR has to do all the dirty work.” says Alice. “They work under constraints, and their only goal is to keep our talents inside. They cannot leave, we have to maintain this image of a great place to work at.” [a label the HR need] “they need to retain them. So when sexual or moral harassment happens, there’s an omerta. You sacrifice the expendables, protect people in positions of power, even if you have to move the most toxic elements. The HR throws the most problematic elements to others HR, taking advantage of the fact that Ubisoft is composed of various companies.”
In the short list of people being publicly accused of sexual assault on Twitter, you can find two stars of the company, beloved saviors of big productions that went wrong. Two people who were in key positions in the company before being moved for a while on tinier projects. And then, they went back to the upper level of the chart in January, when they joined the VP of the Edito team beside Tommy François, under Serge Hascoët.
When the victims try to complain, they hit the HR wall. “The HR of the Edito are clearly the worst I have ever seen; they don’t live up to the H of their name. It feels like I spent years fighting” says Cassandra, “Fighting against people who were not on the employee’s side. It was impossible to turn to them about harassment. It felt like turning to the enemy’s side.” Whenever an employee brings up a problem with his manager, the answers are always the same: “They’re creative people. That’s how they work.” ; “it’s your way of presenting things” ; “if you cannot work with him, then maybe it’s time you move.”Shut up or get out. “It’s a systemic evil that concerns Ubisoft as a whole”, according to a source. “There was some kind of complicity between Tommy François and the HR” says a man who has been morally harassed by the VP. “it feels like you’re fighting with an untouchable system, protected by the top management.”
The evil is so deeply rooted that in an employee representative committee (from December 12th 2019), some people manifested their surprise about the mention of the “candidate’s tolerance threshold to an environment of manly jokes, sometimes really bad or a bit sexist”. Answer from a HR manager in an official report we browsed stated: “It might be a poor choice of words”.
The victims are isolated and find no place to communicate. Nobody trusts the anti-bullying adviser legally imposed since January 2019.
The staff representatives willingly acknowledged
their inability to focus on anything else than the Christmas party. “Nothing scares Ubisoft more than the
perspective of a staff representative union. It has been said several times:
‘we’re good as we are, between us, and we don’t need anyone else, let alone
unions.’ And the employee representative committee made it clear that if anyone
was to unionize, it would end up in court with lawyers.”
“All the statements about a ‘safe place’ at Ubi, of a very inclusive company, have double standards” explains Alice. “They made a team of social responsibility, overseen by HR, but their main goal is just communication.” says an employee. “People in these positions try to do something, but they just hit a wall.”
And so, the reports are closed with no further action taken. Most of the victims leave the company through contractual termination. A whole package with monetary compensation and a non disclosure agreement. As far as we know, none of them pressed charges.
We contacted Ubisoft and they do not confirm Tommy Francois’ administrative leave and answer:
“Recent allegations have clearly shown that we need to do more, as a company, for our employees to feel safe, respected and responsible in their workplace. As soon as the company was notified about those allegations, we launched a full investigation led by an external consultant. This investigation is going on at this moment and we will take appropriate measures depending on its results. We will also take actions to improve Ubisoft’s culture. We will do it with the greatest possible transparency and we will communicate the changes we make as we make them in the next weeks.”
Serge Hascoët and M.B. didn’t answer any of our inquiries.
Yet we have been told that in-house, people think those allegations on Twitter were made by right-thinking vigilantes. Another source in the company indicates that all the talk about Tommy François’ behavior in the days following the Twitter accusations were focused on the best way to protect their talents and support them in their star status rather than re assessing the toxic culture in the company and the way to collect victims’ statements. “Business is business, this is really disappointing.”
On Friday night, Yves Guillemot’s letter to his employees came with two other letters asking victims or witnesses of that kind of behavior to report it to their managers or their HR. But in all of our testimonies, they have the same fear in common. The fear of talking to a manager and being put aside. The fear to see all the top management walk free. The fear of a system incapable of changing.“People knew.” Juliette says with a sob, “Loyalty is too important at Ubisoft.”
Translated by yours truly. If you’ve come this far and read the whole thing, you can consider tipping me on Ko-Fi, I have kitties to feed ! ♥