Roblox grapples with employee demands for more diversity


The company now embodies the massive economic opportunity and cultural influence of the video-game industry. But it also reflects some of its most conspicuous shortcomings, particularly around gender and racial diversity. — AFP

In the spring of 2021, the staff at video-game juggernaut Roblox Corp gathered for an all-hands meeting over the video conferencing app Zoom. An employee submitted by text a question to executives about why there were so few women at the top ranks of the company.

According to multiple people in attendance, the company’s co-founder and chief executive officer David Baszucki accepted the query at the virtual get-together and responded by saying that Roblox has a very high bar in hiring.

Several of the women there said they found the comment dismissive, but not surprising. In public and private forums, the 60-year-old Baszucki and his deputies often noted that the goal of the San Mateo, California-based company was to “hire the best people”.

Three of the 15 current or former female employees who spoke to Bloomberg on the condition of anonymity because of concerns about professional backlash said Roblox managers discouraged them from continuing to bring up such questions about diversity with higher-ups or at meetings.

Roblox’s vice-president of global communications Desiree Fish said in emailed statements that Roblox “encourages candid conversations among our employees”, and is “always seeking high-performing” individuals. “Roblox is deliberate in building a diverse and engaged workforce, a mandate that comes directly from leadership,” she said.

Co-founded in 2004 by Baszucki and Erik Cassel, Roblox attracts over 66 million people to its platform every day and is a behemoth in the world of children’s gaming. Roblox encompasses millions of social online games and provides software that allows anyone to make them. Games like the pet simulator Adopt Me! and the role-playing adventure Brookhaven RP have received over 30 billion visits each.

During the pandemic as schools and gathering spots shut down, young people embraced Roblox as a way to play and socialise with their friends. As usage skyrocketed, Roblox expanded its workforce, which went from 830 full-time workers in 2020 to 2,100 at the end of last year. Revenue jumped from US$924mil to US$2.23bil over the same period.

The company now embodies the massive economic opportunity and cultural influence of the video-game industry. But it also reflects some of its most conspicuous shortcomings, particularly around gender and racial diversity. Like many of its peers, both the executives and rank-and-file workers at Roblox skew heavily male, according to internal metrics Roblox shared with Bloomberg. Roblox said it has no targets around hiring or promoting diverse employees.

Over the years, Baszucki, who is worth US$3bil according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, has taken a hands-off approach to diversity at the company, according to several people who have worked with him. Like a lot of technical leaders, he has a meritocratic view of culture that the best workers will rise to the top without the need for pro-active institutional intervention. Roblox said that to this day he personally approves each company hire.

“What’s the definition of the best people? It’s subjective,” said Genie Harrison, an attorney who represented several women who sued Riot Games over allegations of discrimination, resulting in a US$100mil settlement this year and an agreement by the video-game company to pay for a diversity and inclusion programme. “Whatever the decision-makers’ definition of best person is will automatically deselect some people.”

In response, Roblox’s spokesperson Fish said the company believes “in the value of having a diverse and inclusive workplace to support our mission of connecting a billion people with optimism and civility.”

The company also provided Bloomberg with internal data showing the percentage of women at the company has grown over the past three years, as has the racial diversity of its workforce.

The spokesperson cited Roblox’s “unbiased system for assessing and selecting the best talent,” which does not involve setting targets for the demographic makeup of the company’s staff. Over two years ago, Roblox introduced an equitable performance-evaluation programme that Fish said should ensure “fairness and consistency in the review process.”

Over a dozen current and former employees, most of whom requested anonymity over fear of career repercussions, said Roblox’s efforts have not gone far enough to address their concerns about diversity and the marginalisation of women and minorities.

Former Roblox recruiter Brandon Davis, who is Black, said that during his nine months at the company beginning in June 2021, Roblox made little effort to hire a diverse group of candidates unlike other tech companies where he has worked, including Meta Platforms Inc. He said he once attempted to gather colleagues for a photo shoot for the website that would highlight Roblox’s commitment to diversity, but faced challenges rounding up enough diverse employees. “There weren’t enough Black people to make ‘Black at Roblox’,” he said.

Company spokesperson Fish responded that the company devotes resources “towards inviting less represented groups into the top of our recruiting process.” A new subset of the company’s recruiting team is dedicated to reaching out to diverse talent, including by attending and sponsoring events and conferences designed to boost the number of women and minority workers in the tech industry. Roblox declined to share whether these initiatives have boosted the number of Black or Latinx employees on staff.

Many current and former employees speaking with Bloomberg described their own experiences of marginalisation at the company that, in some cases, led to their seeking new employment. In 2021, Roblox offered one female employee tens of thousands of dollars in severance pay in exchange for signing a nondisclosure agreement after she decided to leave the company citing unsettling experiences around gender and race.

Her final straw, she said, was International Women’s Day, in March 2021. A half-dozen Roblox workers were chatting at a bar during happy hour and sharing concerns around the number of female executives at the company.

In response, a Roblox vice president piped up, saying that he was in the process of trying to hire some women who could eventually become managers, said the people present. Then, according to three people who were at the bar, he wondered out loud whether it counted “if they’re all yellow”.

The three people said they were shocked. According to Fish, the company spokesperson, it was later reported to human resources, and Roblox conducted a thorough investigation immediately after the incident, which concluded with the vice president undergoing coaching and a disciplinary process, as well as issuing an apology. He still manages employees, and Roblox said there have been no additional complaints about the individual’s behaviour.

“We do not tolerate or condone racist or discriminatory language,” Fish wrote in an email, noting that employees are able to anonymously raise concerns about workplace incidents using the company’s internal reporting tool.

Roblox employees have long expressed frustration that unlike many of its Silicon Valley peers the company does not release diversity numbers. But in response to a Bloomberg query, the company agreed to go over its diversity efforts. A few years ago, as it prepared to go public in 2021, Roblox said it began implementing a series of changes designed to diversify its staff and make life inside the company more inclusive for minorities. The company hired a C-suite-level female executive, brought on board a head of people and culture, who is Black, and acquired Imbellus, a female-founded start-up aiming to make hiring fairer by circumventing traditionally biased ways of assessing talent.

Along the way, Roblox’s percentage of female workers steadily increased, from 24% in 2020 to 27% in May 2023, according to internal data, while the percentage of female management at the director-or-above level grew from 22% to 30%. Meanwhile, the percentage of employees who identify as White fell from 43% to 36%. In 2022, women were promoted at a higher rate than men. The female attrition rate in 2023 was 12.5%.

In recent years, allegations of systemic sexism have hit several top gaming companies, which in response have have been working to increase their ranks of female staffers. Since 2018, the percentage of female employees at Riot Games has gone from 20% to 27.5%. In 2022, according to Activision Blizzard Inc, women and nonbinary employees made up 26.5% of it workforce. At Ubisoft Inc, women account for 25.5% of its staff. Despite some progress, the video-game industry continues to lag behind many of the large tech firms, including Apple Inc, Alphabet Inc and Microsoft Corp, whose share of female workers hovers between 32% to 35%.

Roblox declined to provide a further racial and ethnic breakdown of its staff or the demographic composition of its product and engineering departments, which made up 75% of the company at the end of 2022, according to company filings. Fish, the company spokesperson, cited an internal survey in which male and female employees shared comparable responses to questions about job satisfaction. Of the individuals who responded, 90% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that they were “proud” to work for Roblox.

Current Roblox employees said the company still has work to do when it comes to supporting women and non-White employees.

Four women said they were told in annual review sessions that they were “aggressive” or “emotional” in meetings with managers. In a text message to her mom, reviewed by Bloomberg, a former employee recounted how her manager had asked her to be “less direct” and “sound nicer” on Slack, an app that Roblox workers frequently use to communicate internally with their colleagues.

Four current and former employees described receiving feedback from managers in recent years that included language they believe was racially-charged. One employee said that it was “common to hear charged comments targeted at BIPOC teammates, such as ‘confrontational’, ‘feisty’, ‘combative’ and ‘aggressive’.”

In June, in an all-hands meeting, a Roblox worker raised the issue of racism among their colleagues on Blind, a website where verified company employees can discuss internal matters anonymously. In screenshots reviewed by Bloomberg, users had directed several racist comments toward Roblox’s head of people and culture – including one that referred to him as an “ape” – in heated conversations about the merits of diversity at the company. According to people at the meeting, Baszucki said he had not seen the messages, which he strongly disavowed, and added that the company is race- and colour-blind.

“We expect all employees to treat each other with civility and respect, and we do not tolerate discrimination, harassment or unequal treatment of any kind,” spokesperson Fish said.

In July, Roblox will be moving its human resources department under a new executive, Arvind KC, a former chief information officer at Palantir and engineering vice president at Google. According to a July survey by the Entertainment Software Association, half of women are gamers. Sources said gaming companies would benefit from workplace demographics that better reflect their consumers but that significant barriers remain. – Bloomberg

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