The past few years have unveiled issues with toxic cultures at game studios at an unprecedented pace. From Ubisoft to Funomena, the wave of whistleblowing has crashed onto indie and AAA alike.
While these scandals often prompt some immediate acknowledgement from the companies of improvement they need to make and new policies that will be implemented, once the bad headlines fall out of the news cycle, they are often reluctant to acknowledge those problems in public again.
Exceptions exist though, and one such exception is MidBoss. The studio's former CEO, Matt Conn, was accused of exploitative practices and sexual harassment in 2018. Since then, Cade Peterson took over the CEO position and addressed the studio's past cultural issues quite openly -- including in an interview with GamesIndustry.biz -- as well as the team's attempt to pick up the pieces and rebuild MidBoss.
It's also a process that Kim Shatzer has experienced second-hand as managing director of games-focused recruitment agency Onward Play.
"We get to see two sides of studio culture and studio HR issues," she says. "We see it from a talent acquisition side of 'Our reputation is not good, we need to fix it so we can attract more talent', and then we also see the culture issues in gaming from a candidate standpoint, because we are on the phone all day long with talent. And they're telling us what they're seeing in the field, what they've experienced in the past, what they've learnt from their managers, and what they like and what they don't like in culture."
She says there's been a growing movement of employees taking ownership over the culture of their company rather than just suffering from it, or going along with a culture that they don't relate with established from the top down.
"We're seeing it being dictated by the employees now," she continues. "So that's telling us that the millennial generation is really changing the face of the workplace [to] 'This is what's important to us. If it's not important to my employer, I will leave'.
"I'm glad to see that the industry took that turn, and I think some of the issues that were happening were coming from talent acquisition."
Recruitment obviously has a role to play in preventing toxic culture from happening in the first place, with Shatzer and Peterson talking to the GamesIndustry.biz Academy about how to tackle hiring new talent when you're recovering from issues in your workplace.
Make sure you've implemented the right changes
It goes without saying that before recruitment goes back to becoming a priority, you need to make sure you have addressed the issues within your studio.
This article will primarily focus on recruitment tips once you've cleaned your house, but Peterson highlights the first steps to making changes if you've had issues within your company.
"Don't sweep things under the rug to fester, or hide mistakes. They will always come back, and the morale of those affected by previous bad issues will never heal"Cade Peterson, MidBoss
"Listen, acknowledge, apologise, then change the structure and processes to ensure history can never repeat itself," he says. "Following up with changing the way business is run [can] ensure a long-term healthy work environment. Don't sweep things under the rug to fester, or hide mistakes. They will always come back, and the morale of those affected by previous bad issues will never heal."
Shatzer adds that getting the bad seeds out should be the priority and warns against false excuses.
"Often in gaming, because everything is so specialised and niche, if there's a bad seed, some studios may keep [them] longer than they should have been there. Or turn a blind eye when something is reported.
"It's a high stress industry. It's an urgent industry, there's live ops happening, there's deadlines and ship dates, there's changing technologies, which throw a wrench in the plans. In that type of high stress [environment], there could be a lot of poor management styles that come out because you're like, 'We'll never find anyone that can understand' or 'The game ships six months from now, so we'll figure it out in six months but this game's got to get shipped first'.
"Tightening up your HR processes is a great first step. Doing a marketing and a rebrand is also a great step to let candidates know, and the company know, that you're taking things into a fresh perspective and updating some of [your] morals and values, and maybe D&I initiatives are getting updated. You want to refresh on that stuff so people know that you're changing and you're doing better."
Updating your organisation chart and hiring new leaders (especially in your HR team) makes sure you have more boots on the ground to help. Constant communication about it is also fundamental, she continues.
"I know people that have worked at big AAA studios and gone through stuff that say [they] probably heard maybe twice a year from HR leadership about diversity and inclusion, about mental health awareness, and now they're talking about it every week and have a committee for it, [about] how [they] can improve."
"It's not just about changing your logo to a rainbow during Pride months thinking that that's okay. It needs to be a deeper explanation of: here's what we're doing across the board"Kim Shatzer, Onward Play
Shatzer adds that these changes need to be done publicly, otherwise there's no way for prospective candidates to know you've addressed past issues.
"How companies can overcome some of the bad culture and toxic issues, besides just the talent acquisition piece, is really through showing with a really good PR team and awesome recruiters that can sell the 'why' and pitch the changes. A lot of it needs to be public, especially if there's a big scandal. It's not just about throwing a donation towards... whatever type of non-profit, and then trying to solve the problem.
"And it's not just about changing your logo to a rainbow during Pride months thinking that that's okay. It needs to be a deeper explanation of: here's what we're doing across the board, this executive was let go because they dropped the ball on that issue, this is the team that's going to get new trainings, or whatever it might be to improve the ethos and how we think and how we do things, we're investing in different sourcing strategies to bring in different type of talent."
Invest in training
As just highlighted by Shatzer, to better prepare for recruitment, you also need to make sure your managers have the right knowledge to avoid repeating mistakes from the past.
"If you have a culture issue with managers doing X,Y or Z, that's a problem. Those managers need training, their direct reports need training, the HR team needs training," she says. "A lot of it just comes with re-education and having a system in place.
"What we see studios do is they hire directors of Diversity & Inclusion, they hire VPs of HR, they hire staffing firms or consultants to partner with, they talk to the Equity Gaming Project to do trainings on equity, they talk to Take This -- which is a non-profit that does trainings about mental health and mental health awareness for leaders, so they're aware what their employees go through.
"This is a talent shortage industry, there's not enough designers and engineers out there that can build these games fast enough. Tech companies are scooping candidates up, so you really have to position your company to candidates out there correctly the first time because you might not get that second chance."
"If you have the same talent team hiring for your company for a decade, that's why you're seeing the culture issues you're having today"Kim Shatzer, Onward Play
She adds that the "alarming part" of this situation is that no game studio is safe, and as a result all of them should look into their processes and invest in training.
"All of them need to really dig into: what are we doing about mental health awareness training? What are we doing about making sure we have enough diversity and women in leadership roles? And what are we doing about making sure there's enough women and diversity in the positions that are not just maybe the recruitment team or the HR team, or the admin team, or the marketing team, but also that there's more women on the tech side? So that it's not just white men building the characters, the concept, the design of the game and only having that perspective apply to the game.
"Talent acquisition is the first place where I say: oh, well, you've had the same talent team hiring for your company for a decade and that's why you brought in the same type of employees, and that's why you're seeing the culture issues you're having today."
Don't hide past issues, be transparent
When focusing on recruitment after cultural issues, communication is once again an integral part of doing things right. Don't shy away from honesty.
"I think we have fortunately not been affected too much by the previous MidBoss issues in terms of hiring and working with new talent, but we are a small operation," Peterson says.
"Many never asked about the prior problems, but whenever it did come up, we frankly shared the history and how we've changed the way things are done, and let them know that we aim to build a positive environment that is supportive and allows people to share their talents without any fear or anxiety. That level of honesty is unusual in business, but makes people feel comfortable joining us."
Shatzer says she's aware of hiring managers who like to bring it up right away when starting the process.
"Sometimes, we've heard that they tell the candidates, 'Listen, I know we went through something last year, [but] there's so many great people that work here, here's why'. And they can go into their experience and how it combats maybe what they heard on the news or what they heard on Reddit, Glassdoor, or wherever someone wrote.
"And then it's also about sharing information on the changes that the company has made. Sometimes with candidates applying in, you'll see the changes the company has made, be it on their homepage or their career page, and often they'll highlight what work they've done, for maybe underrepresented communities. And they'll talk about some of their initiatives they've done to show candidates: we're trying to make a difference in the space.
"So sometimes it's [during] the interview, other times it's from their website and their press. But often candidates won't even take the interview call if they feel the company does not align with their morals and values."
This touches upon an important issue: how do you even attract candidates after having cultural issues?
"There are some candidates that say 'I will not be submitted there, thanks for letting me know, but I've had friends that have worked there who said horrible things'," Shatzer says. "Sometimes what we tell candidates is: 'Don't even give me your resumé, a salary number, or your start date availability... Just give me your phone number and give me ten minutes. Let me put you on the phone with a hiring manager at that studio and have a non-committal conversation, and let them tell you what their team is building and why you would be a great add for them.'
"Sometimes selling to them 'have a non-committal call' that's not a formal interview, with that hiring manager, that can help sell a candidate [and show how a company is] improving and how [it's] making changes, investing in its employees and giving back."
Bring diversity into your recruitment strategy
Studios that recover quickly from past issues are those that invest more in people, cast a wider net in their recruitment and bring in more diverse candidates, Shatzer continues.
"That's how they're able to change their culture so it's a more positive place, is by bringing in people that are not just culture fits but people that are culture adds, to their workplace, and bringing in a different voice, a different background, a different age, a different experience level, a different experience type, whatever it might be," she says.
"Bringing in people from different backgrounds is going to help address some of the culture issues. But obviously it's top down. So we work with hiring managers that tell us 'I wish we could change this about our process, I wish we could change this about our culture, I wish we had that representation,' and sometimes it does take a horrible lawsuit or a crisis internally at a company and then a bunch of press about it, to make the company really shape up and change their ways and do better."
Make sure you implement the right values from day one
When going through the recruitment process and finding the right candidate, make sure you set the tone from the get go, have your values embedded in your actions and make sure you don't let any bad situation fester.
"Setting the tone from day one for each new member is important, and letting them know that there is a zero tolerance policy for inappropriate behaviour, and to speak up or escalate issues that arise so that they can be dealt with quickly," Peterson says. "Toxic culture doesn't just start out big, but slowly grows over time, so keeping a very careful watch on things and maintaining a healthy operation is vital."
Shatzer concurs, saying that people typically think culture issues start with management, but it also starts with your new recruits and how you've handled recruitment in the past.
"Candidates, or even staffing firms that partner with game studios, at any time, should walk away if something doesn't feel right"Kim Shatzer, Onward Play
"What type of talent or candidates are you attracting into your company? Are you attracting people that come from studios with toxic cultures? Are you attracting the same type of person over and over again? So, then a year into your indie studio being built, it's just a group of white men? What are you doing on the talent acquisition side?"
Concluding our chat, Shatzer highlights the most important principle on the prospective employees side: "Candidates, or even staffing firms that partner with game studios, at any time, should walk away if something doesn't feel right or if a comment is made that they can't stand by.
"And we have done that before. We have said to a client a couple times: your process is not going to find you the talent you want and I could see the red flags of a toxic culture, so we're not going to send our talent to [them] because our talents are trusting us that we're sending them to a studio that is high quality and going to treat them well."
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