Unity CEO Promises Employees Their Work Will Never Lead to ‘Loss of Life’

Unity CEO John Riccitiello addressed employee concerns in a town hall after reports about the company’s military contacts.
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Images: Getty Images

Unity CEO John Riccitiello opened a recent town hall meeting with employees by telling them he understood if they wanted to leave the company. 

“The majority of you are going to agree with what I have to say today,” Riccitiello said. “Some won’t. And while I know this will be difficult to hear for some, I understand that a few of you may determine that Unity is not the best fit for you.”

The meeting, which took place yesterday, was always part of Unity's schedule. What changed recently was the initial topic of the meeting, a response to growing employee concerns after a Waypoint story detailed the company's government and military contracts and why some workers felt increasingly uneasy about the increasing number of contracts, the types of contracts, and a lack of transparency about what contracts could cross a line for Unity.

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Waypoint obtained a recording of the meeting, during which Riccitiello assured employees that Unity would never knowingly work on a project that directly helps the military kill people or trains soldiers in combat. However, Riccitiello did not provide a clear answer to employee questions about how Unity's work could indirectly lead to "loss of life."

"A lot of employees are curious if A: Unity has worked on projects surrounding the simulation of using weapons, weaponized vehicles, training to harm other people or training soldiers," Unity's director of communications Marisa Graves said in the meeting, relaying a question from employees.

“We don’t work on things that involve direct loss of life.”

"Well, training soldiers to do what?" Riccitello asked in response. “We definitely work on training. We don’t work on things that involve direct loss of life...training soldiers is a little broad. There are a lot of humanitarian things that soldiers do...there’s a lot of things you can train soldiers in, but training drones to kill people? No.” 

"John Riccitiello and his leadership team seem to be fully committed to bullshitting their way through this," said one current Unity employee who attended the town hall, and who asked to remain anonymous, out of fear of retaliation for speaking out. "They promised transparency in the town hall, but delivered only lazy deflections."

As one employee pointed out, the fact that Unity currently doesn't knowingly provide the military with technology that directly results in loss of life doesn't mean Unity's technology is not indirectly doing that. It is a fact that the U.S. military exists to fight wars and project power across the globe. Technology that supports the military by default supports this endeavor. 

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"I am concerned that the word 'knowingly' plays a highly operative role in meeting the letter of that goal while violating the spirit of it," one employee wrote in a document Waypoint has seen, where Unity employees could ask management questions to be answered during or after the town hall. 

"I do not want to be a participant in a potential Oppenheimer moment," the employee said, referencing the moment the father of the atomic bomb realized he’d unleashed a great horror on the world.  "What accountability mechanisms exist in the event that a project that was deemed 'not harmful' should result in harm being done so that we may adjust our course for the future?"

"First, my beliefs align with yours," someone wrote in response to this Unity employee's question. (Waypoint doesn't know if the answer was written by Riccitello himself or another executive.) "Second, this is a SEAC issue, and I think they do need more resources to do their thing." 

SEAC stands for the Sales Ethics Advisory Council, a committee of Unity employees who can make recommendations about whether Unity should take on certain contracts. Some employees asked Riccitiello how SEAC can enforce ethical boundaries if it doesn't have actual "teeth," and if it's Riccitello and the board's decision which contracts Unity takes on. Riccitello assured workers that SEAC has teeth because the executive team listens to it, and said that he plans to give SEAC more resources in the future. 

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"Unity has clear principles which have been developed and agreed upon in partnership with our employees," Unity told Waypoint in a statement. "These principles govern the work we do and when we directly engage to support our customers. If we learn that it involves loss of human life, threatens our planet and/or a person’s right to equity and inclusion, we do not do it. Full stop."

"What we’re parsing here is whether it is right to ban specific sectors (military) or industries (energy) or whether we ought to work with these groups," Unity added. "It is our belief that in order for Unity to stay at the leading edge of our industry, we will continue to work with these sectors and many others in order to influence them in a positive way and do meaningful and important work. However, we will always look at each through the lens of our stated principles and do not [Unity's emphasis] engage in programs that violate them."

Unity also said that while there were "dissenting voices" at the company, other employees voiced a more "balanced approach." Unity provided Waypoint with six statements from such employees.

 “John’s comments yesterday at the town hall were great and honestly moved me to tears. I know where he sits politically, but I felt so warm and at home by his commentary," Michael Reis, a Manager, Partner Operations Management at Unity, said in a statement provided by Unity. "Personally, as a US Marine Corps Combat Veteran, 2002 - 2007 and someone that has been deployed twice to Iraq, I think respect in this discussion should be given to all veterans of all nations that work at Unity."

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“I don’t believe the small group of employees outraged on our Unity company Slack thread are representative of the majority perspective of nearly 5k employees,"  Lilly Abbo, a Senior Events Manager at Unity said in a statement provided by Unity. "While I refuse to engage with the thread, myself and other team members I have spoken with about this firmly believe that our leadership’s response to the concerns being raised have been thoughtful and transparent. Not only are they willing to openly discuss a difficult topic but they are also committed to improving the current vetting process. As the daughter of immigrants who fled from Iraq to the US, my family views the US military as a source of safety and freedom. I think that enabling loss of life and protecting those that serve through simulation training are two very different things. Some of the things being said are completely unfounded and ridiculous. It has turned into anarchy for the sake of 'righteousness,' when in reality it appears that many are making conspiratorial accusations without any evidence at all. I’m sad and disappointed that this small contingency is handling things this way, especially when it affects so many people.”

Riccitiello repeatedly emphasized what he saw as Unity’s values during the town hall. 

“My sense is that most all at Unity were aligned on these points: that we do not get involved with programs that would directly lead to loss of life, or harm the planet, or a person’s right to equity and inclusion,” Riccitiello said. “We will not take our support for any specific industries completely off the table. No blacklists. We would work with a range of companies from game studios, to retailers, automotive manufacturers, to governments, oil and gas companies, and militaries.”

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“As a business, I don't know how you draw these kinds of lines,” Pauline Shakes Kaurin, professor in the College of Leadership and Ethics, and the Admiral James B. Stockdale Chair in Professional Military Ethics at the U.S. Naval War College, told Waypoint on the phone. 

Kaurin’s views are her own and do not represent the official view of the U.S. Naval War College. “Especially when you're contracting with DoD, or the military, or a private contractor providing security in Iraq. You're gonna have the same kind of problems.”

“You have active warfighters but for every warfighter you have a whole logistical, bureaucratic structure that supports them, that feeds them, that provides IT for them,” she said. “How do you decide which of those programs directly contributes to warfighting as opposed to indirectly?”

According to Riccitiello, Unity's ability to influence companies by working with them was better than standing on the sidelines. “We’d rather work for positive change inside these organizations, and do good work, than be on the outside having no influence,” he said. “We work with other governments and militaries. It’s a small part of Unity’s business. Less than 5 percent of our business comes from all of this.”

“I don’t think we’d do anything for the Ku Klux Klan.”

Riccitiello addressed Unity's more than 4,000 employees on Slack before Waypoint's story was published, saying that "we can say that we have a thorough review process, and we have not nor will we support programs where we knowingly violate our principles or values." One employee told Waypoint there are more than 100 responses to Riccitiello’s message, and hundreds more responding with emojis. During the town hall meeting, Riccitiello said that many employees reached out to him privately, some of whom served in the military, and shared opinions that according to Riccitiello they were afraid to share in front of their coworkers.  

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“One came from an ex-soldier that credited the real-time 3D training his troops used with helping them come back from their missions alive,” he said. “Another story that I can’t get into here brought tears to my eyes. These and others put their lives at risk for others, the very definition of honor and self-sacrifice. These folks and the people that led them have my deepest respect. If Unity can help them be safe, we should.”

“Yes, large bureaucracies do bad things. This is true of companies, some churches and religions, many charities, and—sometimes—the military,” Riccitiello said. “But they also do good things and those that work within these organizations deserve our respect.”

The first question employees asked was whether Unity would be open to working with the Chinese or Russian militaries. Riccitiello stated that he expected SEAC to keep the company in line when it faltered and that there were obvious lines the company wouldn't cross. 

“I don’t think we’d do anything for the Ku Klux Klan,” Riccitiello said. “They’ve got a simple mission that’s one that doesn’t align with who we are. It’s about the nature of the organization.”

Riccitiello also acknowledged that the Pentagon isn’t Unity’s only military client. “We will work with, and do work with, foreign governments and foreign militaries,” he said. Riccitiello explained that, before SEAC existed, Unity previously got a "big proposal" from a Chinese AI company that's linked to the Chinese military, and that the company decided not to take the work  “ because we didn’t think their missions was one in line with our values.”