Jennifer Priston and Michelle Caland had similar backgrounds: Both were activists, Caland with a feminist organization and Priston with the Victory Fund, a gay rights group. They even came from the same town, Springfield, Ill., and had gone to the same college. Priston, however, had a slight edge: more impressive academic credentials, a wider range of computer skills and a longer work history.
But in early December, when both women applied for an administrative position at Exxon Mobil’s pipeline terminal in Patoka, Ill., human resources supervisors liked Caland much better. They contacted her three times asking her to interview, and even indicated the position would be held open for her for four days. Priston‘s application was ignored.
Priston and Caland are not actually real people. They and their resumes were invented by the national employment equity groups Freedom to Work and the Equal Rights Center to test the hiring policies of a company that has bucked national trends by refusing to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Illinois is one of 21 states that prohibits employment discrimination against gay people and one of 16 that also prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity.
“The LGBT applicant was better-qualified, so there’s no reason why Exxon should have been so aggressively pursuing the less-qualified candidate,” said Peter Romer-Friedman, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney representing Freedom to Work.
Freedom to Work president and founder Tico Almeida said the group would settle the lawsuit if Exxon would simply “copy and paste” the non-discrimination policy of its competitors, including Chevron, BP and Texaco.
“It’s very simple,” he said. “For such an incredibly profitable company the amount of dollars that will be spent on health benefits for same sex spouses of employees will be minimal…And for Exxon that’s becoming a recruiting and retention issue. If you are a promising graduate of an engineering school and you are gay or lesbian and thinking of getting married, a job offer from Exxon is far less appealing than a job offer from BP or Texaco where you will get same sex benefits. I think they’re losing talent by refusing to adopt this policy.”
But yesterday, at Exxon Mobil’s annual shareholder meeting, shareholders again voted down a resolution that would have outlawed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. For the past three years New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who represents the shares in Exxon held by his state’s $160 million pension fund, has backed such a resolution. Every year, for more than a decade, the shareholder resolution has failed to pass. The Exxon board actively opposed the measure, saying it isn’t necessary because Exxon doesn’t discriminate.
Shareholder resolutions are a popular way to raise awareness of corporate responsibility issues, including labor and environmental practices. Romer-Friedman pointed out that union pension funds and pension funds for government workers include significant investments in major companies like Exxon Mobil, hence these institutions could help pressure the company to guarantee LGBT rights.
But, Romer-Friedman noted, “It should not be up to shareholders…there’s no reason the corporate board and officers shouldn’t do the right thing and adopt a non-discrimination policy that protects workers.”
“The business case would say Exxon should do it,” concurs Almeida. “That would leave this at the possibility this is an ideological stance by a few individuals in the corporate leadership.”
Exxon has about 77,000 employees worldwide, according to the lawsuit. Eighty-eight percent of Fortune 500 companies and 94 percent of Fortune 100 companies prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, according to the Human Rights Campaign. The lawsuit said Exxon is the only Fortune 10 company to refuse to adopt such a policy.
“The vast majority of companies have done this without a shareholder resolution,” Romer-Friedman said.
“I’ve lost optimism on the shareholder resolution,” added Almeida. “I think it’s important to do as a matter of principle and I’m very happy the comptroller of New York continues to raise the issue, but that’s not the strategy that’s going to get us to the tipping point.”
Almeida said that Exxon’s recalcitrance is just further proof that action must be taken on the federal level to protect the rights of LGBT workers. Freedom to Work and other groups, including the United Electrical Workers union have been pushing for federal action for several years. They want Obama to sign an executive order mandating that any companies contracting with the federal government guarantee equal rights to LGBT people. Almeida said that Exxon has gotten more than $1 billion in federal contracts over the past decade. He said Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett invited him and other activists to the White House last year, and told them that Obama couldn’t sign such an executive order at that time. Activists figured the refusal had to do with it being an election year and hoped Obama would sign the order if he was re-elected.
“Now it’s been more than six months since the election,” Almeida said. “[Jarrett] has personally given me a series of absurd excuses as to why the president has delayed on this issue,” he added later.
There is also federal legislation pending, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), that would require all employers with more than 15 workers to have non-discrimination policies. Almeida said it is expected to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate by this fall, “but obviously the House will be more difficult.” While activists want all employers to have such policies, they see it as especially important that federal contractors such as Exxon be prohibited from discriminating.
In the meantime, activists hope that individual initiatives like the Exxon lawsuit will keep the issue in the public consciousness and keep pressure on legislators. Such lawsuits can be filed in states where discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal.
Using fabricated resumes with intentionally manipulated similarities and differences is a common practice in testing and challenging discrimination in hiring, housing and other realms. Romer-Friedman noted that Exxon has a highly standardized and centralized hiring process carried out through its website and based largely out of its Texas offices, hence the outcome in Patoka “is not some rogue HR person.”
The lawsuit demands that Exxon not discriminate on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation and that it add those categories to its non-discrimination policies. It also seeks damages and legal cost recovery for Freedom to Work.
If Exxon continues to resist offering same-sex benefits and prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people, Romer-Friedman said, it “sends a message that the law in many states is not important to one of the biggest companies in the world.”