I work at Failbetter Games. These days, I’m CEO. But I worked here for five years before that, and from when I joined in January 2014 until mid-2016, Alexis Kennedy was Failbetter’s CEO. He was my boss for almost two and a half years.
If you’re reading this, you probably know that a few weeks ago a number of women came forward on Twitter to talk about how Alexis had treated them or others who’d confided in them. At the time, Failbetter said we believed them.
Alexis has now responded in a post he called ‘What Actually Happened’. It is not an accurate title. I’ll come back to that.
Some of the things I say will involve my own experiences. Most of these experiences were at Failbetter. Sometimes I’ll refer, with permission, to Failbetter’s records. But I’m not speaking for or on behalf of Failbetter. This is not a corporate statement. I’m speaking as someone who confronts the human fallout of Alexis’s actions pretty much every week, in my work and in my friendships; and more recently, every day.
Why talk about this?
I’ve seen various suggestions that these matters should not have been raised publicly; that they should have been taken up with the individual, with a HR department, with the police, with the courts.
I can’t speak for others, but I’m talking about this because I want to work in an industry where:
- Newcomers of any gender can safely seek out sources of mentorship and guidance;
- People who’ve been harmed feel safe and welcome at our events;
- The standards of acceptable behaviour are higher than ‘has not committed a criminal offence’.
Right now, I can’t see an adequate alternative to public discussion. I’ll talk later about my own past attempt to address one part of this with Alexis privately. It wasn’t successful; had I or others tried again, I don’t believe it would have gone better.
Most indies don’t have HR departments, which in any case exist to protect the companies that finance them. Any interest in employee welfare is at best instrumental, and some of their favoured tools — forced arbitration, non-disparagement clauses — run directly counter to the above objectives.
Criminal and civil law aren’t sufficient, either. Many unacceptable and damaging actions are not crimes. Nor are they necessarily civil actions. Litigation is in any case stressful, uncertain, and expensive for both parties. I don’t think we should expect those who have been harmed to bear those burdens in order to enforce some minimal standards of decency.
And no one thinks the solution to all this is whisper networks, which provide least protection to the most vulnerable, and do almost nothing for those who have already been harmed.
It’s probably also worth saying that I’m not doing this to hurt Alexis, although I accept that it will. Whatever any of us do or don’t do, many people are and will continue to be hurt. Given his role in that, I don’t see why it should be his interests that are protected.
Covert workplace relationships
Alexis acknowledges that he had relationships with two employees while he was at Failbetter. However, his version of the story is inaccurate and omits important details.
Alexis was in a relationship with Olivia, one of his direct reports at a small company where he was also CEO and majority shareholder. He kept that relationship secret from the board. Later, he left Olivia to begin a relationship with another of his direct reports, Lottie. Once again, he did not disclose it to the board. He responded poorly to internal complaints about the situation, including my own, which I’ll come back to later.
After he broke up with Olivia, he mistreated her in the workplaces in ways that were obvious to colleagues who had no knowledge of the relationship. And after leaving Failbetter, he has repeatedly and falsely claimed that he handed over Lottie’s line management when their relationship began, in one case even describing the suggestion that he remained her line manager as ‘provably untrue’.
I did have a romantic relationship with Olivia Wood while we were working together, and while I was her direct manager. This was a real mistake on my part. I owned that at the time and I owned it now.
I embarked on an emphatically monogamous relationship with Lottie (and changed the line of reporting straight off, because I wasn’t going to make that mistake twice).
This claim — that he stopped line managing Lottie when they began their relationship — is false. He remained her manager until shortly before he left Failbetter, nearly eight months later.
Their relationship began at the company’s Halloween party. This is stated in a PCGamesN article for which they were interviewed a couple of years ago. (The article is very strange, and raised eyebrows even at the time; the author has said that after it was published, he felt duped.)
That party took place on 28th October 2015. Here are a few things that happened afterwards which show he remained her manager:
- According to our records, Alexis was the sole company representative at Lottie’s probation review meeting on 25th November, almost a month after the Halloween party.
- Two and a half months after the party, on 15th January, Alexis and Lottie had a one-to-one. That’s the standard term at Failbetter for a line management meeting. They also had one-to-ones on 29th January (three months after the party) and 29th April (six months after the party).
- Three months after the party, Lottie was listed as one of Alexis’s direct reports in the minutes of the monthly board meeting.
- Our HR software shows Alexis signed off all of Lottie’s leave requests until May 2016, when arrangements began to be made for his departure. At Failbetter, leave requests are standardly approved by people’s managers.
- In the minutes of the May 2016 board meeting, Lottie’s name appeared in a list of people who needed to be assigned new line managers. Everyone else on this list reported to Alexis.
If that’s not sufficient, here’s Alexis describing himself as Lottie’s line manager in a Failbetter Slack channel, more than three months after the Halloween party.
At the time, not everyone on the board knew he was Lottie’s partner. I think they would have considered that relevant when assessing his recommendation.
Alexis’s repeated denial that he’d remained Lottie’s line manager surprised those of us at Failbetter who’d been here back in 2015. None of us could remember him transferring that responsibility, not even the person he claimed he gave it to. And many of us had memories that stood in clear contradiction to what he was saying.
But for a while, there were doubts. The thing he was denying was so obvious, so true, so provable — how could it make sense for him to lie about it? Despite our clear recollections, could there be something we were missing? People trawled through emails, company records, and direct messages, trying to understand. Of course, all they found was a lot of conclusive evidence that he indeed remained her line manager, contrary to his claim.
Treatment of Olivia
I didn’t know about Alexis’s relationship with Olivia until after he left Failbetter, but I noticed the change in how he treated her, as well as her mounting sadness and distress. A few things I remember: raising his voice when speaking to her, swearing at her in anger (including one case where he said ‘fuck you, Olivia’ in a company Slack channel), and demanding a style of communication from her that was supposedly more appropriate for senior staff but which other (more senior) employees were not required to adhere to.
Alexis has claimed that he made amends after they broke up and tried to treat her professionally. From what I saw, I think it would be fairer to treat it as a demonstration of one of the many reasons people shouldn’t date people who work for them.
I wasn’t the only person to notice something was different.
While I wasn’t aware of the full context at the time, I was sufficiently concerned about how Alexis was treating Olivia that I offered to speak to him about it on her behalf. Olivia was convinced that would not be fruitful; a position I understand much better, now.
I’ve seen a transcript of the conversation in which Olivia requested a pay rise (in relation to a change in her responsibilities). If he was trying to be professional, I don’t think he succeeded. Here are a few of the things he said:
- ‘holy shit’ (after she suggested a specific number);
- ‘let me be really frank about this. A salary increase that big for a minor role change will look like a negotiating position. It looks like a negotiating position to me.’
- ‘I have a better idea of the value you add than anyone’.
On why people believe
Alexis has an explanation for why so many people in the industry have believed the allegations. He says they were primed by a bunch of unfounded rumours in an echo chamber, perhaps spread by a single person. That isn’t true.
First, quite a few people have made it clear that their belief is founded on their own personal experiences with Alexis, or those of their direct acquaintances.
Second, not everything heard from others is a rumour. We all make use of information shared with us by others, and learn ways to assess its reliability. Personally, I have heard few rumours about Alexis. I have heard a lot of detailed and specific allegations. At this time, only a fraction of them have made their way onto the public internet. They aren’t mine to share. However, I’ll talk later about an experience I had with Alexis that I think illustrates the behaviour of which he has been accused, and which might help anyone who needs to form an opinion on this to do so.
Third, it’s a small industry. Many of us are acquainted with Alexis’s principal accusers, who put their own reputations on the line by speaking out. We have informed opinions about their integrity, judgement, access to information and evidential standards.
Finally, Alexis’s own public responses tell against him. They exhibit tendencies that do not go hand in hand with the respectful treatment of women.
In Alexis’s response to Emily, he explains away her understanding of six years of her own experiences. This is staggeringly patronising, and I suspect it will have evoked weary recognition in many female readers.
He denies ever having any power, except when he wants to talk about how magnanimously he gave it all up. Anyone familiar with the allegations over the last few years in other creative industries will have encountered this defence:
The world baffles the bumbler. He’s astonished to discover that he had power over anyone at all, let alone that he was perceived as using it. What power? he says. Who, me?
His denial ignores the many forms of power other than direct authority that were available to him: reputation, connections, access to platforms, audience, relative wealth, knowledge of intimate personal information. In any case, he had tremendous power over Olivia. He was her boss and then her boss’s boss, at a company where he was majority shareholder and CEO.
Alexis had more control over her career than anyone. It saddened me to see him defend his past actions by saying she forgave him, with no acknowledgement of the coercive effects of their difference in status, or of how much higher the stakes were for her in that conversation.
It is a mark of sincerity to be exacting when considering possible excuses for one’s wrong. For his conduct towards Olivia, he presents a series of insubstantial and frivolous excuses.
He says the secrecy was Olivia’s idea; but that did not negate his own responsibilities as a manager and CEO.
He says she began as a freelancer and gradually transitioned into full employment. But at the outset, he’d already handled this wrong: he should have disclosed the relationship to the board and recused himself from the decision about whether to offer her work, or found a different freelancer.
He says the company culture was informal, and that we wore T-shirts. He was the company’s founder and CEO, and at that time had done more to shape the company’s culture than anyone. If that encouraged unethical behaviour, that was an additional mistake on his part, not an exculpation.
He also speculates that hundreds of his readers are having clandestine workplace relationships, diminishes their responsibility — they’re ‘benign-seeming’; ‘relationships are messy’ — and solicits their sympathy. He also obscures the specially problematic type of workplace relationship he engaged in — relationships with his own subordinates — with others that are vastly more benign. These are the words of a man seeking to minimise the significance of his own behaviour, presenting it as harmless and commonplace, not one who has sincerely acknowledged a mistake and learned from it.
Response to concerns
I found out about Alexis’s relationship with Lottie at the company’s Christmas party, where they flirted very heavily. That was on 2nd December 2015.
I didn’t sleep well that night. The next morning I was flying out to visit my grandparents; I wasn’t going to cancel that, but this didn’t seem like something that could wait a fortnight. So I followed Failbetter’s process for raising concerns about CEO behaviour: I told one of the company’s directors what I’d seen and explained why I thought it was unethical to date someone whose career you substantially controlled. I asked them to discuss it with Alexis on my behalf.
The day I got back, Alexis sent me this:
I did in fact find this menacing. I’d raised one specific concern; my boss wanted to talk to me about multiple issues, which sounded like they were to do with my conduct rather than his, and which he seemed inclined to surprise me with at the meeting. Also, the reference to my situation at the company gave the impression that this discussion might affect my continued employment at Failbetter; Alexis was a professional writer with a strong command of subtext, and it was hard to imagine that was accidental.
When people later told me that he had sent them messages that were not explicit threats he could be held to account for but which they believed were intentionally menacing, this made it easier to believe them.
Meanwhile, I learned from colleagues that he’d been in a bad mood pretty much the entire time I was away, and that he’d yelled at our senior developer. That was something he did from time to time. In this instance it was apparently dramatic enough to attract special comment.
We had the meeting. I told him my concerns. He told me it was none of my business, and that I’d damaged his mental health (he used the words ‘nervous breakdown’). He also said that by using the formal process, I’d made it more likely his wife would learn about the relationship, and that it might affect the terms of their divorce settlement. (I’m not sure how to reconcile that with my dim understanding of family law, which I think obliges both parties to disclose anything that might affect the terms of a divorce settlement, but I suppose that doesn’t really matter, now.)
After that meeting, I remember feeling sadness that he was determined to do this wretched thing; but I also remember feeling remorse that I’d done him so much harm.
So when people later told me that they felt he had made them responsible for his mental health and used that to control their actions, I found it easy to believe that, too.
I wasn’t on the board back then, and had never been anyone’s manager. With the benefit of that experience, it’s now very obvious to me how badly Alexis abused his power.
He should not have remained Lottie’s line manager. He should not have concealed their relationship from the board. (Our communications director only found out about it in March, while they were at GDC.) He should have disclosed my concerns about his conduct, instead of suppressing it secretly under the guise of an ‘enhanced 1-on-1’. He shouldn’t have sent me a menacing message in advance of the meeting, or hinted that it might adversely affect my employment. And he definitely shouldn’t have made a meeting about his own ethically questionable behaviour into one about his mental health or his divorce settlement.
Alexis says he never abused anyone. I do not believe that to be true.
Here are a few examples and illustrations of the harm he has done to former colleagues, friends and partners in our industry.
- Multiple people who worked with Alexis at Failbetter have sought out therapy partly or wholly to address the effects of their relationship with him. Not all of them were women. Another has told me they’re considering it.
- After AdventureX announced that Alexis would not be welcome at their events, someone contacted me saying that they finally felt that someday maybe they could go.
- I know several people who experience fear and anxiety when they attend industry events because of the possibility they’ll encounter him.
- I know multiple people who ask friends or colleagues to go to their conference talks to support them in the event he attends.
- Multiple people who’d had little direct contact with him in years have broken out in tears while telling me about his role in their lives.
- One person developed chronic IBS in the wake of their relationship with him. This syndrome co-occurs with depression and anxiety; they attribute it to the impact of Alexis’s behaviour on their mental health.
- Multiple women who had relationships with him have described feelings of guilt or shame, fear, anxiety, self-loathing, and a diminished sense of their own worth.
This is only a very partial list; other people could considerably extend it. It brings out, though, another reason why people have accepted testimony. Alexis has wrought much lasting harm on many people, and I and others have seen that harm firsthand — the aftermath of emotional abuse.
Alexis’s behaviour at Failbetter was extremely problematic, and went far beyond the minor misjudgement he sought to portray.
He entered romantic relationships with two of his direct reports, and sought to conceal them. After he broke up with Olivia, he treated her badly in ways that were obvious to people who were unaware of their relationship, and that were enabled or exacerbated by the authority he had over her in her workplace. When I found about one of those relationships and expressed concerns, he abused his power and behaved manipulatively in order to suppress them.
Those who have publicly said they believe Alexis’s accusers have often done so for compelling reasons, including:
- Direct knowledge of his actions.
- Access to persuasive and specific evidence from others, including much that has not been shared publicly.
- Experiences with Alexis in which he demonstrated a willingness to manipulate or intimidate others, to abuse power, to deny verifiable truths, or otherwise behaved in ways that lend credibility to the reports.
He has wrought serious and lasting harm upon multiple former colleagues, friends, and romantic partners, sometimes in ways that have curtailed their ability to operate in our industry. As the last few weeks have shown, this is not an isolated case. We need better ways to handle these situations.
In their absence, and given the insufficiency of previous attempts to deal with it privately, there has been no adequate alternative to public discussion.