All-Hands Meeting at Blizzard Entertainment Undermines Concerns and Frustrates Employees
17.02.2023 um 14:14
Blizzard Entertainment President Mike Ybarra spoke to employees in an all-hands meeting over zoom yesterday, addressing a number of controversial subjects including stack rankings, reduced profit sharing, and the upcoming
return to office mandate
which would end three years of work-from-home policies. A
report by Game Developer
relayed quotes attributed to Ybarra, as well as additional context added by a Blizzard spokesperson after the fact.
Stack Ranking Employees
The practice of using stack rankings to evaluate employee performance came to public light after Classic WoW Technical Lead Brian Birmingham
left the company in protest
due to refusing to give out an undeservedly low employee evaluation in order to fill competitive stack ranking quotas required by executive leadership. Citing it as an unfair practice which pit employees against one another, Birmingham followed up by saying the policies originated from the problematic influence of Activision Blizzard, rather than Blizzard Entertainment leadership specifically.
Despite those comment seemingly absolving Blizzard and its leadership, however, President Mike Ybarra took a different line - purportedly downplayed the concerns raised by Birmingham:
Frustration apparently began to boil as the Q&A went on, particularly during a conflicting back-and-forth discussion of how the company "ranks" worker performance. Ybarra reportedly downplayed comments made by lead software engineer Brian Birmingham, who criticized the company's use of a "stack-ranking" policy that he claimed would force him to punitively rank an employee whose performance he found to be satisfactory.
Blizzard's spokesperson told Game Developer that Ybarra did not directly reference Birmingham's comments. They provided an explanation of the content of this conversation that did mirror the sentiments our sources said were expressed in the meeting:
"We don’t to stack rank employees 1 through X at Blizzard. We have high expectations for our teams. Managers set goals with every employee and we measure performance against those goals. We provide managers with guidelines for how to consider performance ratings across larger teams to ensure they’re more fair and unbiased, and there is flexibility," they said.
"Leadership provides feedback across the company to ensure that ratings are not solely based on one manager’s opinion. Performance management is every manager’s job, it isn’t an easy one, and we appreciate them."
Reduced Profit Sharing
Compensation was also a big talking point, following a recent announcement that Blizzard employees would only be receiving 58% of their profit-sharing bonus, despite record breaking growth and profits during
Activision Blizzard's latest Financial Results
report. While this cut is being applied to executives, managers, and workers alike, employees took exception to a statement made by Ybarra suggesting that all groups were similarly affected by the cuts when each group's base compensation and bonuses are so dramatically skewed.
According to several sources, Ybarra stated something to the effect of: "If you think that executives are making a lot of money and you aren't, you're living in a myth."
In the context of the discussion, Ybarra's statement was technically factual. Blizzard's decision to cut the profit-sharing bonus to 58 percent does apply equally to all employees, executives included.
In a broader context, sources agreed that Ybarra's statement—and particularly the implication that employees are "living in a myth"—doesn't make sense.
Discussion regarding the
end to work-from-home policies
tied into the question of compensation, as employees would soon find themselves with increased expenses related to returning to a physical office. Others may have to relocate entirely, although apparently
workers would be able to remain all-remote.
According to our sources, Ybarra responded to a question that argued this return-to-office policy would cause the company to lose talent at an inopportune time. The questioner asked what leadership intended to do to prevent such departures.
Ybarra reportedly did not provide any clear action plans to retain talent, though it was apparently shared elsewhere that Blizzard would open offices in new (unnamed) locations to act as central hubs.
He did however, reportedly say the following: "At the end of the day we want people to be happy, and if decisions about about being happy don't align with where we're going, and you won't be happy, then you'll have to do what will make happy."
After publication, Blizzard reached out to add additional comment on this topic. "We understand some people may not find this model ideal, and that change is hard, but we’re one of 90% of companies returning to the office this year and we’re committed to supporting teams in making the transition," they stated. They also reaffirmed that the company is continuing to honor the status of all-remote workers, and exceptions on the return-to-office plan will be made for "medical or religious reasons."
Perhaps the largest point of outrage came from comments implying that quality assurance and customer service, two of the employee groups most affected by these other changes, were not considered long-term disciplines. A Blizzard spokesperson walked the statements back after the fact, citing entry or junior level roles rather than CS and QA departments specifically, although this clarification rings somewhat hollow, given that the majority of CS and QA are generally hired as low paid entry or junior level roles.
...in that discussion Ybarra reportedly said something to the effect of "some of our disciplines are not long-term disciplines," in reference to those departments.
Blizzard's spokesperson confirmed Ybarra made that comment. According to them, those disciplines are considered "not long-term disciplines" because the company "wants people to grow and take on expanded responsibility and opportunity." They said that Activision Blizzard has "many programs" to support that growth.
After publication, Blizzard reached out to Game Developer to state that this comment from Ybarra was not made to reference "any specific discipline or department."
"Roles at Blizzard have different compensation levels," they stated. "We encourage and support people in lower-compensation roles to further develop skills and expertise that allow for greater opportunity and rewards for them."
"This was meant to include a broad swath entry/junior level roles and was not targeted at our talented CS or QA teams who play important roles in serving our players. We appreciate the important roles our QA and CS teams play in serving the players."
Demoralized Employee Response
In response to these and other comments made throughout the meeting, employees response has been overwhelmingly critical. Feeling demoralized and undervalued, several have taken to Twitter and other social media to share their frustrations and show support for their fellow coworkers, while lamenting the alarming cost of living in areas like Irvine. GameDeveloper again relays a few of these comments from their own sources:
One source speaking to Game Developer wanted to stress that today's Q&A with management was the most demoralizing one they'd witnessed since J. Allen Brack's made his final internal comments before he departed the company in 2021.
The combined comments made during the Q&A painted a picture of management that stunned this source. According to them, Blizzard employees who weathered the last two years did so with the belief that the Blizzard Entertainment of today is not the one described in the lawsuit filed by the State of California. They described a sense that many unpopular decisions seen by the public were being made by Activision Blizzard, above Mike Ybarra and other company leaders.
Today's Q&A has challenged that belief. They said that hearing the words coming out of Ybarra's mouth made it seem like the unpopular policies and refusal to raise pay were driven by Blizzard leadership. "It feels wrong," they said. "Nobody asked for this, no one knows where this came from."
"This is not the Blizzard we've worked at for the last year-and-a-half."
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