In the UK town of Aldershot, the QA company formerly known as Testology has been on a three-year journey to right its ship following racist comments from a former CEO that left the company bleeding money and clients. But despite the promise and seeming necessity of a business refresh, the studio now known as GlobalStep UK is not yet thriving.
In fact, according to conversations I had with 14 current and former GlobalStep employees -- some of whom had been there since the Testology days -- the exact opposite is true. They said that the office environment as of the first half of 2020 had grown increasingly stifling, confusing, and demeaning for those who remain with the company.
Some report being effectively "ghosted" -- dismissed for seemingly no reason and never contacted again. Others reported discriminatory remarks, a culture of misogyny, not being paid correctly, and managerial "lists" ranking employees based on appearance, social circles, if they were smokers, and whether or not they were critical of management.
A "Fresh Direction"
The genesis of the company's problems can be traced back to June of 2017, when then-CEO of Testology Andy Robson made a racist post to his personal Facebook following the 2017 London Bridge attack, blaming Muslims for the attacks and saying that the UK needs to "get rid of every Muslim."
The remarks were widely condemned, and Robson apologized, but the damage was done. Multiple clients -- including Rebellion and Double Eleven -- openly distanced themselves from the company, and at the time there were other unverified reports that it had lost business.
So when technology services company GlobalStep acquired Testology in October of 2018, the plan was for, in Robson's words, a "fresh direction." Robson resigned, handing the reins to GlobalStep CEO Gagan Ahluwalia -- who was already overseeing the company's main operations in Pune, India, alongside a newly acquired and rebranded Montreal office, formerly Bug-Tracker. Operation of the UK branch then fell to Ahluwalia's son, Sanjiv Ahluwalia.
GlobalStep leadership ran the branch under the assumption that 'if the issue was simply the ownership, the business would turn itself around'
Speaking in a response to a request for comment on the various stories and accusations in this piece, a spokesperson for GlobalStep explained that when the company was first acquired, it was "losing money heavily." For the first year after the acquisition, they said, GlobalStep leadership ran the branch under the assumption that "if the issue was simply the ownership, the business would turn itself around."
Thus, for all of 2018 and most of 2019, the structures and protocols of everyday work for QA testers and leads remained intact from the Testology days. Under both managements, all QA personnel were employed under zero-hour contracts through an external employment services agency called Eden Group which handled their payroll and employment contracts. Full-time middle management employees were hired directly by GlobalStep. Eden Group did not respond to a request for comment on this story in time for publication.
Under these contracts, the QA testers, assistants, and leads at both Testology and GlobalStep UK are paid hourly, but are not guaranteed any specific number of hours per week -- nor are they required to accept any hours they're given. Employees don't get paid sick or vacation leave, though they can take it freely if needed. Holiday pay was, per former employees, "factored into" their regular hourly rate rather than being given as a separate payment for work on those days.
The sources I spoke to acknowledged that zero-hour contracts and the relatively low pay that accompanied them are fairly typical for QA, at least in the UK. Some expressed gratitude for their time at GlobalStep, saying it served as a good entry-level QA position that gave them experience they later could use to move up in the industry. In fact, those I spoke to who had been there since the Testology days said that following the acquisition, things seemed to go smoothly enough at first. Sure, there were some challenges, but nothing they characterized as out-of-the-ordinary for a company changing hands and management.
GlobalStep believed that Testology was operating both under a failed business model and 'a serious people capability deficit'
The structure of the contracts, the ousting of Robson, and the acquisition itself were not in and of themselves the problems. Rather, sources say, it was how their employer began to exploit the detached nature of those contracts beginning around late 2019 and into early 2020 that began to cause issues for many at the company.
The changes, according to GlobalStep, came about after over a year of observations. By the end of 2019, the spokesperson said, GlobalStep believed that Testology was operating both under a failed business model and "a serious people capability deficit."
According to GlobalStep, the business was a "melting ice cube." Following Robson's comments in 2017, the company said, numerous senior members departed the company, and their jobs were never filled. Though its remaining tester pool had plenty of enthusiasm for games, the spokesperson said, it believed its testers lacked interest in other areas of development, strong existing backgrounds in software QA, and specific educational backgrounds that would allow them to do necessary quality engineering testing.
It added that traits such as "knowledge sharing, cross-training, and flexibility in deployment...proved impossible to implement" unless they "changed the make-up of the workforce." At this point, GlobalStep proper had, per its own statement, been mostly hands-off at the UK studio.
This, combined with a need to broaden the business both in services offered as well as global reach was what led GlobalStep to begin making drastic changes to how the Aldershot office operated in late 2019 and early 2020, according to the company.
A "Reset," a "Culling," a "Ghosting"
For the QA testers, the changes began to manifest around late January and early February of this year. Sources describe a "reset" of how scheduling and assignments were handed out, with upper management taking over scheduling from the employee who had previously been in charge of it, moving employees around onto projects they were less familiar with or placing less experienced testers on more challenging projects.
When asked about this, GlobalStep accused the employee who had been in charge of the scheduling process in the months leading up to the reset of nepotism. The spokesperson described the former scheduling system as a "completely opaque process" that relied on in-groups of older Testology employees, shutting out qualified but more recent hires. And they added that these employees -- who often came from more diverse backgrounds than those in the older testing pool -- didn't complain, but found jobs elsewhere when they weren't given hours.
"The existing model was one of hoarding knowledge to try and hold the project hostage to individuals," said the spokesperson. "This is a failed model. The market does not subscribe to it. It is one of the reasons amongst others that drove Testology to bankruptcy."
"Clients were pissed, the quality of work dropped and [it] was done so suddenly and haphazardly that it was detrimental to the company"
-An anonymous former employee
In my interviews with former employees, a number of them mentioned that the former scheduler had been pushed out of their role due to accusations of favoritism even after being provided and allegedly adhering to upper management guidelines for how to call employees in. Everyone I spoke to -- including those whose work hours were not impacted by the schedule -- adamantly denied that scheduling had been an issue. Sure, some said, those who had been there longer got more hours more consistently -- and many had come to count on consistent near-40-hour weeks -- but newer employees were able to achieve the same with time and good work.
"Sanjiv didn't like this as he felt that it made the company beholden to the testers with all of the experience," said one middle management employee who was aware of the situation but was not impacted by the daily schedule. "There is validity in that point in the grand scheme of things, but all [the scheduler] was ever trying to do was to put the right people on the right projects as they'd always been instructed to do.
"Ironically, Sanjiv tried to change this by putting different people on different projects that had no experience in them and it was an f-ing mess. Clients were pissed, the quality of work dropped and [it] was done so suddenly and haphazardly that it was detrimental to the company."
Amidst this scheduling tension, one incident spiraled into something bigger. In late February, an assistant QA lead found themselves called in one day and assigned the lead role on a project -- a position they had not yet been trained for, and were not being paid a lead wage to do. When the tester publicly spoke to director of business development and day-to-day office manager Ben Gunstone about the problem, they were told that if they were unwilling to do the work, they should go home for the day. That tester was never called in again.
An estimated ten to 30 employees went home at some time during the last six months at GlobalStep UK and were never contacted again
This incident was but the first of many instances of employees reportedly being "ghosted" by GlobalStep. Every source I spoke to that was present at the company in February confirmed that throughout that month, a number of testers simply went home one day and were never called it again, seemingly for no reason. Several described it as a "culling" of employees, with multiple noting that one particular group of around 8-10 appeared to have been impacted all on the same day.
Though none were able to give me a specific total number affected (due to different employees and different numbers of employees being called in on any given day), and GlobalStep declined to give specific numbers, those I spoke to estimate somewhere between ten and 30 employees went home at some time during the last six months at GlobalStep UK, assuming they would be called in again in a few days, and were never contacted again. Employees estimate that between 50 and 100 people worked at the company in various capacities in early 2020.
Though those I spoke to who were impacted acknowledge that this appeared to be legally within the bounds of their contracts, they described frustration and confusion surrounding the circumstances of their dismissal. Several tried to contact the GlobalStep office to ask when they would be called in again, only to be told repeatedly to call back later, or that the person they wanted to speak to (usually Sanjiv or Gunstone) was not in. A few who were impacted allegedly tried to reach out to Eden Group as well, but most did not receive a response. Those that did were simply told, belatedly, that their "services were no longer required."
More than one employee allegedly still has not received a response from Eden Group or GlobalStep on their current employment status, and while they are technically still employed under their zero-hour contract, they have not received work in months.
Several tried to contact the GlobalStep office to ask when they would be called in again, only to be told repeatedly to call back later
GlobalStep denies that such a "culling" occurred. Rather, the company spokesperson attests that neither the amount of work, nor the number of people being called in, nor the number of people in the tester pool changed during this time.
"What absolutely did change was the discipline of adherence to the call-in priority and the actual people who were being called in. The total pool itself was no different. We did not go out and hire 15 new people in one day to the exclusion of anyone else. Nor was there a loss of 15 or 20 people worth of work."
"So the charges of dismissal are unfounded. But yes, there was a clear enforcement of ranking and prioritisation criteria and a strict admonition to the scheduling staff to adhere to it."
The spokesperson claimed that anyone who reached out to either GlobalStep or Eden Group was responded to, despite several claims to the contrary from sources.
"The People Business"
Multiple employees, including some impacted by these proceedings and some who remained afterward, allege that these dismissals were part of a stifling, controlling atmosphere that began to grow at the studio in late 2019 and early 2020. Several described Sanjiv as "paranoid," seemingly afraid of some kind of uprising from the testers that the dismissals were meant to prevent.
Throughout early 2020, many employees at multiple levels believed that Sanjiv and Gunstone had a list of employees they didn't like and were trying to get rid of -- a belief that stemmed from direct conversations the two managers are said to have had with middle management staff in which they complained about how much they disliked and wanted to fire certain employees. The list was supposedly based on factors such as appearance and dress (none of the employees I spoke to were aware of a dress code at the company), level of education, willingness to criticize or question management decisions, who a person associated with at the office, and whether or not a person was a smoker.
"I got to a point where I was being very careful with who I was talking to," said one former employee. "Because I thought, 'If Sanjiv thinks I'm really good friends with this person, I could just imagine that I'd stop getting called in.'"
"I thought, 'If Sanjiv thinks I'm really good friends with this person, I could just imagine that I'd stop getting called in"
An anonymous former GlobalStep employee
The issue of smoking specifically came up in multiple interviews, with several reporting having overheard Sanjiv joke, after the flurry of dismissals, that matters in the office had improved now that there were no longer "too many people who smoked and had beards."
One employee acknowledged that while the group of smokers likely overstayed its allotted break times on occasion, they did not recall ever being reprimanded or instructed to cut the breaks short.
Though GlobalStep did not comment on whether or not Sanjiv had made this remark, it did confirm the existence of "ranking criteria" for its employees -- though the spokesperson points out that this was based on execution of its aforementioned company transformation strategy, not on other factors.
"It would be foolish and against our self-interest to use such a criterion." said the spokesperson. "Rational people investing £2 million in annual overhead expense are focused on executing a strategy that protects their investment instead of focusing on beards and smoking. There are people who smoke and who have beards, both in our tester pool as well as in our employee ranks. Neither smoking habits nor beards feature in our hiring, call-in or retention criteria. While we cannot be certain of smoking habits as we do not inquire, there are multiple recent hires in the tester pool and management ranks of people with beards - It is simply not a criterion one way or the other."
The inciting dismissal of the employee who was given lead responsibility without lead pay in February was allegedly not the only time an employee was not paid correctly for their work. Multiple sources said that it was common, especially following the "reset" of how employees were scheduled, for testers to be called in as assistants or leads without getting paid the slightly higher hourly wage (no more than an extra £1 per hour, according to employees) for the higher responsibility and skill required.
"The idea that people were doing work for not the right amount of pay was very standard. That was just the way the company ran, as far as I can tell"
An anonymous former GlobalStep employee
"The idea that people were doing work for not the right amount of pay was very standard," said one source, acknowledging that the pay issues dated back to the Testology days. "That was just the way the company ran, as far as I can tell."
One source said that a more recently promoted group of QA leads was eventually given correct pay after months in limbo waiting for Sanjiv to sign off on the raises. However, the raises were not backdated to account for the months of higher-wage work the employees had already done. The pay situation also extended to multiple management roles, where employees were promoted to what should have been salaried, full-time positions but were kept on hourly tester wages. One employee said that they were discouraged from asking for their promised raise, saying that one member of management heavily implied to them they'd be let go like others were if they continued to push for it.
In response, GlobalStep attested that there were few people in the tester pool as of late 2019 who had the ability to move upward, and that most of those in management positions at the time were underqualified.
Many, especially those employees at higher experience or pay levels with some degree of authority, reported that the atmosphere of paranoia impacted day-to-day work as well. Sanjiv and Gunstone were both described as micromanaging and controlling, with Sanjiv especially sensitive to criticism of any kind but leaving confrontation to Gunstone. Gunstone, several said, would frequently yell at employees in his office and could be heard through the walls, and would discuss with some employees behind closed doors how much he wanted to fire particular individuals for pushing back against him in any way.
"The minute you second-guessed or criticized or disagreed, it's almost like you put a mark on your back and all of a sudden life was hell," one employee said of the situation in the office in early 2020.
"The minute you second-guessed or criticized or disagreed, it's almost like you put a mark on your back and all of a sudden life was hell"
Anonymous former GlobalStep employee
Another said, "Everything you wanted to do had to go through Sanjiv, which could take weeks. And then he'd come back and say, 'Why didn't you do this sooner?'"
GlobalStep responded to the accusations of micromanagement by saying that due to the failing nature of the business when it took over, "it is most reasonable and consistent with any business turnaround standards that upper management hold everyone including themselves accountable to the execution of the turnaround and growth strategy of the company."
And in response to the accusations against Gunstone, the company said, "Ben is an ethical manager and leader and has made a tremendous contribution in taking a business that would have liquidated, with no jobs at all, and poured himself into upgrading the skills of the tester pool, providing services at GlobalStep levels and working tirelessly to turn the business around. It is painful to us to hear these unfounded allegations."
Some of those with larger responsibilities described being overworked, expected to pick up their phone if Sanjiv called at any hour of the day, or pushed to work shifts of 12 hours or longer. Others said that even though management placed high expectations on them, they were not given resources necessary to do their jobs -- an allegation that GlobalStep rejects. Multiple employees with higher degrees of experience and responsibility told me they were asked to take on additional responsibilities on top of their normal jobs, such as maintenance jobs, recruitment tasks, or jobs that fell under the heading of HR.
Over the course of my interviews for this piece, no current or former employee of GlobalStep was able to tell me who the official HR manager was for the QA testers, though a few mentioned that direct GlobalStep employees had an HR manager outside the UK office. A few named a person who worked at Eden Group, though they added that Eden Group HR was never responsive or helpful in getting actual grievances addressed and was mostly focused on payroll.
No current or former employee of GlobalStep was able to tell me who the official HR manager was for the QA testers
Sources I spoke to named at least four different employees at the studio who were there at different times in different roles as occupying a sort of ad hoc HR role for employees to share grievances with. None of them had HR duties as a part of their job roles.
GlobalStep confirmed in its response that it did not have an HR representative based in the Aldershot office. The company has a director of HR offsite who worked with full-time GlobalStep employees, and Eden Group was responsible for providing HR support to its own employees. In response to complaints of multiple non-HR employees fulfilling HR roles, GlobalStep replied that it did not believe that to be the case.
"All of us are in the people business," the spokesperson said. "To give you a specific example, if the Director of Business Development sees more demand than the right resources available in the talent pool, he does not hesitate to get directly involved in recruiting the resources he feels will be a fit for our client needs. All of us tend to be involved in the details of our business."
At all levels, employees described a growing fear that being honest with management about concerns would get them fired, stemming from an observation that many of those let go in early 2020 had been vocal with concerns and questions at staff meetings or just openly in the office.
One employee said this extended to issues with other employees, describing a situation where they had a grievance with another employee that could have been solved without reprisal if a manager was willing to speak to the employee or mediate. However, they opted not to report the issue, out of fear that reporting the person would get them fired in an overreaction. Another employee described being asked to "inform" on others who weren't happy with management, with the implication that they would also be let go if they did not.
"I have Teams Channel logs available where the people showed disdain for the company engagement direction and openly mocked it on internal company forums," said the GlobalStep spokesperson. "Such people most definitely moved lower in the priority rankings. We see absolutely no need to call in people who openly oppose the company direction and are disruptive in its execution."
"We have a turnaround strategy to make the business sustainable. Without a sustainable business, there would be no jobs. We absolutely do not apologise for taking the action necessary to protect and create jobs in a way that is responsive to the needs of the marketplace and creates a scalable and sustainable business."
"There was zero planning and preparation, right up until the last minute"
Anonymous former GlobalStep employee
Another issue arose in March, when the UK began to require non-essential businesses to work remotely or close in response to COVID-19. Those I spoke to who were still at the company at the time say that GlobalStep UK was delayed in shutting down, with employees still in the office for a few days following the official start of the work-from-home orders.
"There was zero planning and preparation, right up until the last minute," said one former employee of the situation.
Additionally, in mid-May a small group of employees were sent an email instructing them to prepare their at-home equipment to be collected so that work could resume in the office the following Monday. When employees expressed concerns about returning to the office, they were told to "continue as normal" by Sanjiv.
Later that day, all employees involved in the conversation had their work accounts deactivated and were removed from the schedule. That Monday, the group was told their services were no longer required by Eden Group, and GlobalStep allegedly did not respond to any of their requests for an explanation.
When asked about this incident, Gunstone responded that the decision to stop offering these employees work had already been made when they were asked to come into the office -- they were being asked to take their equipment in to return it. Since they did not come in, the equipment was picked up from their homes instead, he said, and they were paid a full day of work for making themselves available for the pickup.
The GlobalStep spokesperson added that with the exception of the aforementioned group of employees bringing equipment in, the company did not ask anyone to come into the office during the lockdown period except for the IT infrastructure manager as-needed, and as of July 6, there were a total of five employees currently working in-person at the UK office, which is intended to hold a maximum of 100 people.
Update: Following the publication of this piece, GamesIndustry.biz has obtained a copy of the email originally sent to the group of testers asking them to return their equipment. No mention is made in the email of them being dismissed; instead, the email clearly states that those asked to come in that day were being called in specifically to resume working from the office.
The original story continues below:
"Total Transformation 2020"
Midway through the process of investigating this story, another issue arose suddenly -- sources reached out to tell me they had heard the company was accusing its former employees of perpetuating a culture of racism, homophobia, and misogyny that had existed at the studio since Robson's tenure. In my initial run of interviews, hardly any of the sources described anything like such a culture at the studio, even when asked directly in the course of some routine questions about the studio environment. Of the two that did, both suggested that these issues stemmed from upper management, rather than fellow employees.
However, when I asked Gunstone directly about the concerns, he informed me that the company had recently been going through team chats of former employees for other information and had found "very disturbing racist, anti-Semitic and misogynistic messages - reflecting sentiments of violence against women, people of colour, Jews and other minorities."
Gunstone shared with me an anonymized excerpt of a team chat between three former employees -- two who had been employed through Eden Group, and one through GlobalStep proper. The chat indeed contained a number of slurs, racist and anti-Semitic remarks and images, and glorification of rape, with message excerpts from throughout 2019 and early 2020. Gunstone added that while the company was unable to take disciplinary action as the chats were not discovered until after all three employees had departed the company, GlobalStep was investigating for any other similar conversations among former or existing employees, and was also considering whether there were grounds to inform police of the messages for a possible criminal charge.
Gunstone said the company had been going through team chats of former employees and found 'very disturbing racist, anti-Semitic and misogynistic messages'
"We are in the process of informing current employees and members of our tester pool about the unacceptable behaviour we found, and reminding them of our core values, including our total commitment to diversity and zero tolerance for racism, racial discrimination or hostility in the workplace," said Gunstone. "Following the resignations and changes in our tester pool, which is now much more diverse than it was in January, we believe that all those who now work with us adhere to those values."
Speaking in more detail, the GlobalStep spokesperson added that its investigation into work chats found that some of its testers were resorting to "project subversion."
"This included calling in sick half an hour before start of shift; at times multiple experienced testers on the same project," they said. "At other times, facts were misrepresented to clients. New testers from diverse backgrounds were set up for failure. Others on chat openly expressed the desire to do what they could to get clients upset but not upset enough to leave until these testers and their friends could set up their own testing company. All of this is on chat logs. And it was indeed a very closed group of people."
When asked again directly (following these allegations) if there was an overriding culture of racism, misogyny, or anti-Semitism at the studio, most of my sources who would reasonably have knowledge of such a matter reiterated that there was not. However, several (including those who spoke of the matter before) did acknowledge that the studio could be a "boys club" and that they were aware of a few women who had felt uncomfortable there.
Two sources pointed out that Gunstone would complain publicly about personal issues with women in ways that emphasized sexist viewpoints.
A few pointed out that there was a culture of crude jokes -- including specifically sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or anti-Semitic jokes, though one mentioned that these were all mostly made by the same, single employee. Another noted that management had never addressed the issue in any way -- though GlobalStep attests that until the chat logs came to light in recent weeks, it was never informed of these matters.
Three former employees responded by saying that there was indeed a misogynist atmosphere at the company, but that it was perpetuated by Gunstone and Sanjiv. One, who had been a member of middle management, pointed out that the women at the studio were often asked by Sanjiv in particular to do secretarial, HR, or hospitality jobs around the office while men with the same roles and responsibilities were not -- an accusation GlobalStep called "baseless." Both pointed out that Gunstone would complain publicly about personal issues with women in ways that emphasized sexist viewpoints. The third added that Sanjiv would also frequently make insulting and shaming remarks about mental illness.
Whether through quiet dismissals or deliberate departures, GlobalStep appears to be going through a period of high turnover alongside the implementation of what it calls its "Total Transformation 2020 plan." The company said that it is investing roughly £2 million into annual management and facility overhead to "totally reshape the practice," alongside a "full upskilling" of its staff.
The company is trying to move its recruitment capabilities in-house, rather than relying on an external firm. It says it's putting together a bulkier senior management team, branching out into other client service functions, and putting together a roster of QA leads, quality engineering personnel, and a bulk of game testers who will be full-time GlobalStep employees rather than on zero-hour Eden Group contracts. Though the old model would remain, the company said, it would be strictly an "entry point." However, based on multiple statements in the spokesperson's email, the vast majority of these jobs appear to be planned for outside recruits rather than the dwindling number of employees who have stuck with the company this long.
As for the accusations of racism and misogyny, GlobalStep responded to a question about its plan to promote a diverse work culture with an example of its shift in hiring practices. Per the company's statistics, in July of 2019, 96% of those called into work identified as "White British" while the remaining 4% were Polish.
As of July 2020, 52% of the company identifies as White British. 10% are Portuguese, 10% are Black British. The remainder of the company includes those who identify as Chinese, Indian, Russian, Belgian-Black, Romanian, Sudanese, Venezuelan, and Polish.
Beyond hiring, GlobalStep did not provide a strategy to clean up the company culture, saying only that it makes its zero-tolerance policy clear through its HR practices.
"The legacy Testology model has no market sustainability," the spokesperson said in summary of the company's plans for the future. "It is a way to bankruptcy. In contrast, we seek to create a high value-added practice with well-compensated staff, with traditional games QA being tightly integrated with higher value-added services.
"Our actions have been dictated by the desire to create the right skills in our tester pool and management team to be able to execute on this strategy rather than anything else."