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Practical tips to prevent abuse and build team trust

At GDC Summer, Emily Greer offers advice on how to build a respectful workplace and what to do when harassment occurs

"Even though so [many harassment allegations have] come out, if you talk to [people] in the industry, the sentiment that you're going to hear again and again is that we're surprised that more hasn't come out because this just feels like the tip of the iceberg, from what we know from our own stories and what we have heard from our friends."

So opened Emily Greer, CEO of Double Loop Games and former CEO and co-founder of Kongregate, at her GDC Summer talk on practical tips to prevent abuse and build team trust at companies.

"When stories come out, it's really easy to shudder and say, 'God, that's awful. I had no idea,' and think, 'Well, it's good. It's been revealed. Now that person is out of the industry, and we can move on,'" she continued. "But there's been so many cases across so much of the industry that I think it's time to really grapple with the fact that it's not just one company, it's not just a few people, it's systemic. And bad actors are flourishing in games on a broad scale."

emily_greer

Emily Greer, Double Loop

Greer does not believe harassment is inevitable. She believes group norms are not fixed within companies, and there are things that can be done, especially at the top level, to strongly influence group norms. While there will always be a small handful of people who will act badly and a handful that will behave well no matter what the circumstance, she said, most people exist somewhere in an ethical middle, and the activities, ideas, and behaviors modeled by leaders that are incentivized or tolerated will become the norms of a workplace.

It is, then, the responsibility of leadership to create environments that encourage good behavior and discourage harassment and disrespect -- and the best way to do that, Greer said, is to seriously consider the power dynamics within your company.

When looking into employee abuse and harassment, she said, harassment usually used to enforce a pecking order and control and push out rivals. Men might be insulted or called racist or homophobic slurs, but for women it's almost always phrased in sexual terms. And though companies may have in-groups and out-groups that vary in composition based on the company's location, make-up, and structure, Greer believes gender always plays a very strong role in power dynamics at gaming companies because of gaming culture in general.

"There are things that you can look at and say, 'Oh, that is clearly harassment, that's clearly illegal,'" she continued.'" But it's generally happening within a context where there are lots of things that led up to it that are not necessarily illegal, but they might be if they're happening enough. Companies have been focusing for a long time on just eliminating illegal harassment and the most egregious stuff, but to create a safe environment and to create a respectful environment, you have to deal with that whole spectrum, which includes a lot of things that are more accepted.

"You can't half-ass this. I can't emphasize this enough. Your culture is defined by what you choose to do when it's inconvenient"

"And you can't half-ass this. I can't emphasize this enough. Your culture is defined by what you choose to do when it's inconvenient. Not by what you say when it's expected. Everybody can see through PR pieces that are, 'Oh, we're sorry, oh, we can do better,' or check the boxes that are required by the state. We know what you think is important by what you give your time, your attention and your budget to."

With that in mind, Greer offered a number of suggestions and examples for company leaders who want to address power dynamics at their companies in order to create a culture of respect. She noted that this doesn't mean going to a flat organizational structure -- harassment can still thrive in a world with no bosses. It means thinking about that separation and how it's perceived, and fighting leaderboard mentalities while ensuring people who are being harmed by others feel safe and protected to come forward.

Servant Leadership

"Leadership isn't about the leaders being the big people who are in charge and important. Their job is to serve the people doing the work broadly, and empowering them and teaching them and listening to them and raising them up. In broader culture, one of the most famous examples is Costco, which really focuses on making their jobs great for the employees and are rewarded with tremendous retention and loyalty. They've done things like in the last financial recession, they gave their employees a raise when sales were down because they felt their employees needed it.

"In games, I think Supercell is a culture that whether they think they follow this or not, they have very much kind of the model where the CEO is there to serve the games team."

Watch Your Words

"[As a CEO, I] watch my words in a very different way. I'm [typically] quick to say things and say a lot of things off the cuff. And that was totally fine when we were five employees, even when we were 15 employees. But as we grew and people came into the company, knowing my name and thinking I was important as a CEO, I had to change how I talked to people. I still felt like the same approachable, easygoing person, but they had a lot of natural fear of me. And I needed to be very careful about things that I said, either praise or criticism.

"So I encourage anybody who is in leadership and going through it to think about what your self image is versus how your employees think about you, and really think about how you talk to them."

Niceness Does Not Equate Respect

"Another thing that we struggled with sometimes at Kongregate was distinguishing lack of conflict, or niceness, from respect. It's really important for everybody, whether you're an individual or a company, to be able to hear criticism and act on it in order to really grow and flourish.

"And a lot of companies, in trying to get away from people being increasingly cruel, get into the norm where nobody can say anything critical. And that's not great. You need to be able to express thoughtful criticism. You need to be able to deal with the things that are bad and are important.

"And you need to be able to fire somebody, because if you can't, undercover harassers are going to thrive. So think about that distinction. Am I being nice? Or I'm being truly respectful."

Set the Tone Early

"There's been so many cases across so much of the industry that I think it's time to really grapple with the fact that it's not just a few people -- it's systemic"

"One thing I think is really important is to set the tone early with new hires. People come in feeling insecure, and helping them see what's expected and making them feel safe is really important very quickly.

"[There were] a couple things we did at Kongregate. One is that I went out of my way to greet every new hire, didn't wait for them to be taken around to greet me, and made sure that they knew that I knew who they were and thought that they were important. And I heard from a lot of people when I left, that that was actually specifically really meaningful. It only took five or ten minutes on their first day, but it really set the tone of what the company was like and what I was like."

No VIPs

"You should have no VIPs. There shouldn't be special travel rules or special vacation policies for people. Everybody should be fundamentally be treated the same. And that includes access to bonus programs or equity. Even if they're participating in a much smaller rate, everybody should be able to be included.

"The other side of that is sharing communal responsibility -- things that everybody needs to do. Rotating kitchen duty was really effective at Kongregate. And I think it was always really powerful for people to see my name and my brother's name on that list and to see us in there doing something that was serving them."

Access to Leadership

"People talk a lot about transparent communication and access to leadership. It's really common for companies to do regular business updates. But you need to go beyond that for best results, and have everybody feel like they can really reach out and talk to leadership, and that leadership will be honest. That includes not just cheerleading, but also talking about real challenges and how you're addressing that.

"Having any kind of system where people can ask anonymous questions really is helpful, because even if they don't use it, the fact that you're willing to take anonymous questions really opens up the feeling of trust. Getting people to talk to other levels, to skip level one-on-ones and things like that, is really great. Definitely think about remote employees and people in other locations to make sure that they have similar access."

Actively Look for Red Flags

"There are always going to be some people who are charming and cooperative with you, but with the 'kiss up and kick down' type of personality, who behave very differently with others. You need to look for those, look not just how they behave in front of you. But look at signs of how they're behaving elsewhere."

Greer additionally shared on her slide a list of red flags that someone in leadership is problematic, which included:

  • Negative exit interviews from those who work under them
  • Higher turnover
  • Inter-team and peer feuds
  • Consider tasks beneath them
  • Disrespect of support staff

Pay and Promotion

"Now, this is a topic I can't go into very deeply. But one of the most important ways we show how we value people is how we pay them and how we promote them. And there are a lot of common practices, especially in US compensation, that create disparities over time."

Greer shared several examples of how a company might end up with the same people doing the same job with the same experience, but paid differently

Greer shared several examples of how a company might end up with the same people doing the same job with the same experience, but paid differently

"The thing that I want you to take away is to answer this question. If everybody in your company's pay and compensation was released publicly tomorrow, could you defend it? If you can't, that means that you need to do more work in terms of analyzing the equity between people and the equity relative to the market, and you need to do that on a regular basis."

Less Binge Drinking

Greer pointed out that in many of the recent harassment stories shared publicly, heavy drinking or environments where alcohol was readily available and encouraged was a factor. She said that while she's enjoyed drinking with friends at industry events, she had taken steps over her time at Kongregate to dial back alcohol use without losing the fun of social activities. These included:

  • No alcohol without lots of food
  • Open bar limits (time, shots, etc)
  • Attractive non-alcoholic options
  • No peer pressure to drink
  • Earlier events (also more parent-friendly)
  • More varied events, including family picnics, ice skating, tabletop games, scavenger hunts, music club, hiking, and kayaking

Dating

"Dating is another element in fun things that become pretty problematic quickly. Everybody should have a base policy [on employees dating one another]. You also really need to think that people above a certain level. It doesn't matter what the reporting structure is, they're always going to have a power differential with people who love them. And I think especially for the top level founders and C-level, and anybody in HR, you should have a policy where dating is strictly prohibited. There's no situation in which that doesn't end up being messy and a breach of trust, and you really don't want any situation where somebody high-level is treating the company as their personal Tinder pool.

"I also have a spicy take. Employees are more likely to date each other if they're working, you know, 70, 80 hours a week and not seeing other people, so don't crunch and it's less of a problem."

When Harassment Does Happen

Greer was candid that even if all these steps are executed perfectly, there are still going to be people who want to be abusive. And if company culture is discouraging abuse, these people are going to be more discreet, which means it can be harder to track down abuse and deal with it.

"You need to accept that getting harassment reports is actually positive, because it means that your employees have faith in the system, and have faith in you to take it seriously," Greer said. "They're not going to social media, going to the newspapers, going to a lawsuit. These are all the actions of people who have no hope of any recourse. So you get a harassment complaint, even if it feels terrible, it actually is a positive thing and means that you're doing something right."

Greer suggested that companies have "real" harassment policies, not just something they find on the internet. Policies need to be accessible and specific -- not at all generic -- and need to cover the spectrum of not just what is illegal, but what's inappropriate. Policies should also be presented to employees with an easy, encouraging way to provide feedback, because otherwise there's no way to adapt to what the real situation and dangers are within the company.

"Identify things like GDC or the company holiday party where stuff is more likely to happen and develop a mitigation plan"

Another thing Greer warned of is the tendency to "freeze" when something does happen. One way to avoid this is to identify situations where harassment is more likely, and offer clear, pre-planned paths for escalation if a problem does occur.

"Identify things like GDC or the company holiday party where stuff is more likely to happen and develop a mitigation plan," she said. "Include things like having food there and having a point person and sending out an email in advance saying, 'If anything happens, please come to this person and they will help you deal with it.

"One thing I also used to do is reach out to higher risk groups. Because most of my negative experiences were interacting with the outside world, I would talk to our business development people and tell them, 'If this happens to you, if you see something, please come to me. It's happened to me, I will believe you.'"

Greer also noted that companies need to prepare for ambiguity. Sometimes, harassment will occur where there are no witnesses or evidence -- it's only based on what one person said versus what another person said. There are also going to be stories with a mix of consensual and non-consensual behavior, or even bad behavior on both sides.

"You're going to have to come to some sort of synthesis of what the truth is, but you need to do that in a context of understanding how difficult it is for reporters -- they're taking a lot of risks. And when you think about a court of law, it's absolutely right that the system should be 'innocent till proven guilty.' But when you're thinking about an internal investigation: are you ready for this to happen to another employee? Maybe 10 or 20 more employees before you get even one more report? You need to think about, given the severity of what happened, what balance you want to strike there and what makes sense.

"People will often talk about [zero-tolerance] policies. But those can backfire. Because people won't necessarily report something more minor because they're afraid of getting people fired"

"But that doesn't mean that you want to fire everybody. People will often talk about [zero-tolerance] policies. But those can really backfire. Because they mean that people won't necessarily report something more minor because they're afraid of getting people fired. You need to look at what the context is. What was the intent, what's the pattern? Were they drunk? All of those things to help put together what the correct response is in any situation.

"Part of respect is having faith that people can learn and grow and change. But the caveat with that is that anything predatory or very cruel still needs to be dealt with swiftly and harshly."

Greer also pointed out other factors to take into consideration, reminding leaders that no employee should ever be too valuable to fire over harassing behavior, and also to take into consideration the fact that the reporting process itself can be very traumatic for people -- so it's important to do everything you can to make reporters feel safe, without fear of retaliation or being forced into a lunchtime mediation session with someone who makes them feel uncomfortable.

Finally, Greer concluded by reminding the audience that they didn't have to tackle everything she's listed all at once -- but you need to start somewhere.

"Think about the principles that I'veconveyed and think about what works in your context, what's going to be authentic to you," she said. "And if you're a manager within one of these larger organizations, think, 'I can't get everybody on board, but I can make my team feel safer. I can make my team feel better with my own leadership, and my own communication.'

"And as an individual bystander, you can learn how you might intervene or be ready to help. Leaders have the most impact, but everybody can do this. And we can do it gradually over time and make the industry better, and it's absolutely worth it."

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