For millions of gay and lesbian employees, much has changed since 1999, when no states recognized gay marriage, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” effectively barred people who were openly gay from serving in the military, Matthew Shepard’s murderer was convicted — and Exxon Mobil shareholders were first asked to protect gay and lesbian employees from discrimination.
One thing hasn’t: Exxon Mobil’s implacable opposition to adding sexual orientation to its official equal employment opportunity statement.
The issue will be on the agenda at Exxon Mobil’s annual shareholder meeting next week for the 14th consecutive year. Last year the company went so far as to ask the Securities and Exchange Commission for a ruling that it needn’t keep including the proposal on its ballot, but was rejected.
The proposal, backed this year, as it has been since 2010, by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli on behalf of the New York State Employees Retirement System, has never gained majority support. That’s not unusual for so-called social, political and environmental shareholder initiatives, since most institutional money managers usually decline as a matter of policy to vote against management recommendations on such issues. Still, the measure has gained as much as 38 percent of the vote, considered resounding support by the feeble standards of shareholder democracy.
That hasn’t fazed Exxon Mobil. On the contrary, as social attitudes and other corporations’ policies on the subject of gay rights have changed drastically, Exxon Mobil has moved steadily further from the mainstream, even within the energy sector. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 88 percent of Fortune 500 companies have adopted written nondiscrimination policies prohibiting harassment and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, as have all the major integrated oil companies that compete with Exxon Mobil.
Twenty-one states, the District of Columbia and more than 160 cities and counties have laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. But Exxon Mobil maintains it isn’t bound by these because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which pre-empts state law. A constitutional challenge to DOMA is awaiting decision by the Supreme Court, and two federal appeals courts have ruled DOMA unconstitutional.
“Exxon Mobil is an outlier among Fortune 500 companies on this issue,” Mr. DiNapoli said when I asked him about the issue this week. He said it was not only a social or civil rights issue. “The company runs the risk of restricting its ability to attract and maintain top talent. Exxon Mobil is sending a message that applicants and employees can be discriminated against on the basis of non-job related criteria. It just doesn’t make sense from a bottom-line standpoint.”
In countries where it’s mandated by law, Exxon Mobil does have policies barring discrimination against gay and lesbian employees — and extends spousal benefits to same-sex married couples. But the company has gone to unusual lengths to avoid doing so in the United States. Mobil Oil had polices protecting gay and lesbian employees from discrimination and extended benefits to same-sex couples. But Exxon rescinded them when it acquired Mobil in 1999. It eliminated the same protections and benefits when it acquired XTO Energy in 2009.
A former Exxon Mobil employee told me that he was involved with the company’s effort to transfer a highly valued executive from Belgium, where the executive lived with his husband, to Texas. He said the executive told the company, “I’m not coming alone,” and asked for the same medical benefits and recognition for his spouse that he received in Belgium. The company refused.
An Exxon Mobil spokesman said he couldn’t comment on a specific case, but noted that the United States immigration service doesn’t grant visas to same-sex spouses since those marriages aren’t recognized under federal law. He confirmed that it was company policy to provide such benefits only in countries where they are mandated by law, and not in the United States.