After months of back and forth between employees and management, Just Cause developer Avalanche Studios – not to be confused with Hogwarts Legacy developer Avalanche Software – has published a public apology to its employees for its mishandling of a controversial hire.
The full statement can be read here under the section titled “Our Journey”, and includes the following:
There have been times when we’ve had more to learn than we realized, and reflecting on where we’ve been is an important part of our journey forward.
We’re sorry we haven’t gotten things right every time.
During those times, the tireless work of Avalanchers who dedicate their attention and effort to improving the company has been invaluable.
The progress we can celebrate today is thanks to the compassion and convictions of our employees. To all Avalanchers who have spoken up throughout the years, engaged in our DEI efforts, and helped us throughout this journey, we want to say this:
Thank you for your contributions. You have our deepest respect, and we are grateful to you.
While Avalanche didn’t go into the specific reasons for adding this apology to its website, IGN has spoken to a number of sources familiar with the situation at the company over the last few weeks, and who have shared more details on how Avalanche got here. According to their accounts, Avalanche’s apology comes more than a year after the company hired a high-level individual who had been publicly accused of inappropriate workplace behavior toward female employees at his former company. IGN has verified the public allegations against the employee in question, but is choosing not to identify him here.
But while our sources say this person’s hiring was the catalyst of their frustration, their real conflict ultimately became less with the individual in question and more with the company itself. They say that Avalanche management and HR repeatedly avoided engaging with their concerns about the company’s hiring processes, dismissed feelings of discomfort from those in the company who had experienced workplace harassment in past jobs, and ignored requests for transparency on how Avalanche planned to keep employees safe going forward.
Now, over a year later, our sources tell us that Avalanche’s willingness to acknowledge the matter at all is due to an overwhelming internal pushback against perceived attempts to downplay a situation that made many internally feel unsafe and unheard.
A Rumbling Avalanche
Our sources say the individual in question was hired in 2021 into a project leadership role within Avalanche Studios, a subsidiary of Nordisk Film with offices in Stockholm, New York, Malmö, and Liverpool.
Almost immediately, multiple employees raised concerns with the studio’s leadership and HR over the hire, but sources say those concerns were not acted upon. At one point, employees were allegedly reassured by leaders that they would not have to work directly with this person due to remote work and his status as a contractor – which in itself was considered unusual given his leadership role. However, our sources tell us these promises were later broken in 2022 when he began to work in the office, including holding one-to-one meetings with female employees and attending company events. This person was eventually promoted, prompting another wave of frustration from employees who did not feel their concerns were being heard by management or HR.
The individual eventually resigned in mid-2022, but sources say the lack of transparency around his hiring and the company’s unwillingness to acknowledge employee concerns remained a source of agitation within the studio. In October, one employee approached Avalanche leadership on behalf of a group of employees to ask the company to apologize, but no action was taken.
Matters came to a head on November 9 when an Avalanche employee posted a message in a work Slack channel saying they were “no longer comfortable with the ethical implications of selling my labor to Avalanche Studios Group.” The message, which was reviewed by IGN, specifically tagged Avalanche CEO Pim Holfve and invited employees to email the poster on their personal email for more information on the situation.
This prompted a company-wide email from Holfve later that day, in which Holfve emphasized the company’s “zero tolerance” policy, and attested that Avalanche had in fact done a background check on the employee after the issue was raised internally. The background check, he says in the email reviewed by IGN, included the results from a third-party investigation at their previous workplace.
“The person has since left their contracted position with us, but the person chose to do so for project reasons only,” the email continues. “Their decision had nothing to do with the accusations from their previous workplace.
“There have been no claims and no suspicion of any misconduct by the person during their time at Avalanche Studios Group.” [Emphasis Holfve’s]
The email concludes by promising to open an investigation of Avalanche’s hiring practices led by a third-party legal company, and encouraging employees to continue raising concerns to HR and Holfve himself via existing internal channels.
On November 14, Avalanche management conducted a town hall meeting for which employees were encouraged to submit questions. Rather than answer them live, the company promised to distribute a Q&A with answers to selected questions several days later. IGN has viewed the Q&A, which sheds light on the nature of many employees’ concerns, which our sources also echoed. In particular, employees voiced questions about the lack of scrupulosity in the hiring process that led to this person being brought on in the first place, why the numerous reports of discomfort didn’t result in action or even acknowledgment, and the general lack of transparency from management throughout. As one of the questions in Avalanche’s vetted Q&A read: “The most common question is why the concerns expressed by Avalanchers were not acted on when they were brought to managers or HR managers, asking, ‘why do we not listen to our co-workers’ experiences?'”
IGN has also viewed emails from the days that followed the town hall from Holfve and chief human resources officer Signe Svensson. Much of Holfve’s email reiterates points from the Q&A and his previous email, but the overall tone is more contrite.
“Yesterday evening, a few Avalanchers reached out to me and Signe to share their experiences from the past year. They shared that they had not felt comfortable, and not felt heard. It saddened me to hear these accounts. No one should have to feel like this about their workplace, least of all at Avalanche.
“I can honestly say that your concerns have not reached me in the past year, and I did not know about them, or I would have acted on this information. For that, I’m really sorry. Had I known those things when yesterday’s email was written, I would have apologized right there in the email – of course.”
In a second email from Holfve sent a few days later, Holfve notes that his “own understanding of the events has also evolved over the last few days, and new facts have surfaced,” adding that he has since learned that “there were concerns raised regarding [the employee’s] leadership style going against our values and code of conduct.”
“All of this highlights a number of flaws in our processes. For this, we are truly sorry. I said it to everyone on Thursday, and I’m saying it again today: we fucked up.”
Holfve also repeats a refrain he’d maintained through past emails of urging employees to use internal channels such as Avalanche’s whistleblower system, or by approaching him or the CPO directly. He also urges employees not to speak to media outlets about the situation, saying that “external attention would not expedite things.”
Svensson’s email announces to employees that Avalanche is contracting with independent DEI investigation group Gender Balance to look into the processes that led to this situation and help the company make changes to avoid it in the future. According to the employee Q&A, Gender Balance’s involvement is the direct result of employee feedback. While Avalanche had initially set out to engage a legal firm, employees pushed back, urging the company to work with an organization focused on building good anti-harassment and anti-discrimination practices. The company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion committee suggested Gender Balance specifically, with Gender Balance’s website claiming it not only investigates harassment reports, but recommends measures “that take more than the legal side into account.” The investigation began on November 21.
The Q&A also notes that Microsoft, with whom Avalanche has partnered on upcoming co-op open world game Contraband, was made aware of the situation. “They have not expressed any concerns with how we are handling what’s come to light on our end.”
IGN has reached out to Xbox for comment, but did not hear back in time for publication.
Change in the Wind
Multiple sources told us that over the course of this conflict, a large number of Avalanche’s 500 employees have voiced their displeasure with Avalanche’s handling of the situation. Those same sources added that they had each heard from others in the company who were deeply uncomfortable, but did not feel safe speaking out against management.
IGN reached out to Avalanche for comment ahead of this piece. While Avalanche did not respond in time for publication, employees informed us of the apology statement published earlier today.
Several people we spoke to expressed frustration that it took this long and this much effort to get Avalanche to take action. One source IGN spoke with again this morning called the public statement “underwhelming”, saying they had expected more.
Others told IGN they hoped a public acknowledgment of some kind would serve to set an example for the industry at large. One source, who we briefly spoke with again after the apology was published, said they were feeling optimistic, and hoped this and the other actions taken by the company in recent weeks would ultimately ripple into the culture of other games studios in the region.
“They say a rising tide can lift all boats,” they concluded. “This looks like sea change to me.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.
Source: IGN Video Games All