Corporate America has taken bold strides over the past decade, with many companies expanding protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees. But the world's most profitable company has dug in its heels, gay advocates say.
For more than a decade, shareholders of ExxonMobil have voted against a proposal to add language to the company's equal employment opportunity policy that would augment protections for LGBT employees. The corporation’s current equal opportunity policy states it will provide equal employment opportunity to all individuals regardless of race, color, sex, religion and half a dozen other legally protected statuses. But sexual orientation and gender identity are not mentioned.
For the past few years, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has pushed a shareholder resolution calling on ExxonMobil to explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The latest resolution will be presented to shareholders for a vote at next week's annual meeting at its Dallas headquarters.
DiNapoli serves as fiduciary and trustee of the $147.2 billion New York State Common Retirement Fund, which has a $1.4 billion investment in ExxonMobil, its largest holding. DiNapoli said he considers it his fiduciary duty to make sure the company has inclusive policies for the LGBT employees.
But ExxonMobil maintains that it already has ample safeguards for its employees, pointing to other company policies and documents that explicitly protect LGBT staff. In January, ExxonMobil wrote a letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission requesting permission to exclude the matter from a shareholder vote this year.
"Substantially the same shareholder proposal has been a recurring item of business at ExxonMobil's annual meeting for many years," James Earl Parson of ExxonMobil wrote the SEC. His letter argued that the company has already improved its anti-discrimination policies and that DiNapoli's proposal was unnecessary. "The Employment Policies and Practices page on ExxonMobil's internet site now specifically states that our zero-tolerance policy against any form of employment discrimination covers both sexual orientation and gender identity."
But after reviewing DiNapoli's proposal and ExxonMobil's policies, the SEC denied ExxonMobil's request. "Based on the information you have presented, it appears that ExxonMobil’s policies, practices, and procedures do not compare favorably with the guidelines of the proposal and that ExxonMobil has not, therefore, substantially, implemented the proposal," wrote Erin E. Martin, an attorney-advisor in the SEC's division of corporation finance.
Advocates for greater protection against discrimination argue that ExxonMobil's other written policies don't carry the same weight and legal significance as a line in the equal opportunity policy. ExxonMobil has been targeted by activists since 1999, when Exxon and Mobil merged and the new corporation rewrote Mobil's policies, making them less favorable to gay employees, DiNapoli said. Before the merger Mobil provided benefits for partners of gay employees. Now, the company has the lowest rating of all Fortune 500 companies, according to Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index.
In its report this year, HRC noted extensive changes undertaken by Fortune 500 companies. A decade ago, 13 businesses had achieved a top score of 100 percent; this year, nearly 200 snagged the top rating. Yet, this year ExxonMobil received the first negative score to be granted on the Equality Index: a minus 25 percent. HRC's report evaluates companies' anti-discrimination policies, domestic partnership offerings, LGBT or diversity group resources for employees, and the public commitment to the LGBT community, among other things.
"If the company doesn't have these protections for all employees, it's very clear that it's not going to be able to attract and retain the best talent available," DiNapoli told The Huffington Post. DiNapoli's concerns about ExxonMobil's corporate culture extend beyond its equal opportunity policy. The corporation does not provide benefits for spouses of same-sex employees, even in states like New York, where same-sex couples can marry.
DiNapoli said New York's recent legalization of same-sex marriage has further heightened his interest in this matter. "If anything, we have an even greater sense of urgency about this issue now. Ultimately, we want to make sure that employees not be denied benefits other married couples have access to."
Several other groups are joining DiNapoli in pressing for policy change at the gas and oil giant, currently ranking first on Fortune's 500 list. Resource Center Dallas, an LGBT advocacy group based just 12 miles from the company's headquarters, has requested a meeting with ExxonMobil to discuss its anti-discrimination policies. This week Freedom to Work, a LGBT organization in Washington D.C., started a Change.org petition asking the company to adopt more inclusive policies.
"Given Exxon's rabidly anti-gay history it would be an exceptionally significant victory to get them to accept equal protections and equal benefits for LGBT employees," said Tico Almeida, the president of Freedom to Work. "They are the last big dinosaur, from another era."
A spokesman from ExxonMobil declined to address any specific questions about the shareholder resolution or about its EEO policy, but directed The Huffington Post to the letter the company sent the SEC and to online employment policies that ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
UPDATE: 5:50 p.m. --
Eric Sumberg, a press secretary for the Office of the New York State Comptroller, wrote The Huffington Post that the New York State Common Retirement Fund's investment in ExxonMobil has changed slightly: "We announced yesterday that the Fund is now $150.3 Billion and we own approximately $1.3 billion in ExxonMobil."