Star Citizen devs Cloud Imperium fined for discriminating against autistic programmer over work-from-home request

A UK employment tribunal have ordered Star Citizen developer Cloud Imperium to pay around £27,748 – approximately $35,230 – in compensation for discriminating against former senior programmer Paul Ah-Thion, who was dismissed in 2022 after his requests to work from home following an office move were denied.

Ah-Thion, who is autistic, joined Cloud Imperium in 2018. As reported by Game Developer, he was based at the space sim developer’s former offices in Wilmslow, before Cloud Imperium instructed employees to work from home in line with UK Covid pandemic lockdown requirements. In 2021, following the cessation of more stringent social distancing measures, Cloud Imperium opened a new headquarters in Manchester, and required staff to return to the office.

Ah-Thion, however, had found that working from home allowed him to avoid what he describes as the exhaustion and distress of working on Cloud Imperium’s premises. The article doesn’t go into detail about this, but it’s worth noting here that many autistic people have great difficulty with the sensory environment and social expectations of in-office work, unless proper accommodations are made.

Ah-Thion applied for a permanent remote working arrangement following the mandated return to the office, but was quickly denied by Cloud Imperium. The two parties went back and forth over the request, and Cloud Imperium eventually dismissed Ah-Thion in July 2022, citing performance issues related to his remote working setup. During the subsequent employment tribunal, Cloud Imperium claimed he was unable to meet certain job criteria, such as mentoring junior staffers, when working remotely.

The tribunal, however, rejected many of Cloud Imperium’s justifications for the dismissal, noting that in the absence of a formal investigation of Ah-Thion at the time, “concern about the claimant’s performance seemed rather retrospective”. According to a Cloud Imperium witness at the trial, the company never formally asked Ah-Thion to return to the office, despite their alleged misgivings about the impact of remote-working on his performance.

The tribunal also found that Cloud Imperium “failed to give any evidence to suggest why they could not monitor [Ah-Thion’s performance] successfully remotely whilst he was working from home” and that “there is no evidence that working from home would have failed to achieve the respondent’s legitimate aim of ensuring the acceptable performance of a senior gameplay programmer”. As such the tribunal’s conclusion is that Cloud Imperium “treated the claimant unfavourably because of something arising in consequence of his disability”, and that the company could have offered the reasonable adjustment of letting him work from home.

“We find there was a failure of the respondent to understand the nature of the claimant’s autism,” the judgement comments. “It was a condition of his autism that he struggled with his duties to act as a coach, reviewer and mentor to the junior members of the team. The evidence shows that the claimant was struggling to do this when he worked in the office.”

Game Developer also has some comment from Ah-Thion himself, who calls attention to what he calls a “tick-box mentality” to looking after disabled workers at companies who think that “sending a manager on a two-hour course about a disability is all they need to do”.

“I’ve been fighting this by myself for two years, and being autistic made the whole process especially challenging,” he told the site. “But we’re lucky to have the employment tribunal system, where an ordinary person can actually find justice without having to bankrupt themselves on legal fees.”

“It was clear to me from the start that CIG didn’t want people to work from home after the expense of their new Manchester office, and worked backwards from that to retroactively conjure up reasons why my request should be denied, something they continued to do right up until the final tribunal hearing – all while ignoring disability legislation. It was gratifying that the tribunal saw through them as easily as they did.” The legislation Ah-Thion refers to here is presumably the UK’s 2010 equality act.

Cloud Imperium are far from the only company to have shed staff in the course of ordering a return to the office. In December 2023, Activision Blizzard announced plans to end hybrid remote/in-office work for QA staff based in Minneapolis, Austin and El Segundo, in what the ABK Workers Alliance described as a round of “soft layoffs”, with some staff potentially forced to leave due to being immunocompromised or the sheer financial cost of the commute. Rockstar announced the end of hybrid working in February 2024, citing a mixture of concerns about “quality and polish” together with security considerations in regards to GTA 6. By contrast, Crytek made working from home a permanent option for staff in April 2022.

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