Last week, shareholders at ExxonMobil’s annual meeting in Dallas rejected an initiative that would have required the company to explicitly include sexual orientation and gender identity in its employment non-discrimination policies. This came as no surprise. For more than a decade, ExxonMobil shareholders have repeatedly rejected such initiatives and by wide margins.
As a 20+ year veteran of the oil industry, a former President of Chevron Pride and as current Co-Chair of Out & Equal Houston, I thought it might help to provide a little history and “industry-insider” perspective to understand how (and why) things are as they are today.
One of the things that industry outsiders often fail to understand is that oil & gas prospects are in the main long-term. From exploration to discovery to production often takes a decade. Once a prospect is in production, that field may operate for decades or longer. Chevron’s fields in the San Joaquin Valley of California have operated for more than 125 years and have reserves that can be produced at current levels for another 125 at least. That’s not to say the industry is hide-bound or backwards – far from it. If you want to see truly high-tech in action, watch a team build a sub-sea system under a mile of water in order to produce oil trapped another five miles below the sea floor – all based on remote sensing, super-computer models and maps and daily exchanges of terabytes of information across global IT networks.
The oil & gas industry does, however, dislike risk – technical, political, geologic or economic risk. That sometimes bleeds into other areas. We also operate in areas that are hostile to LGBT people. Imagine, if you will, having the prospect of being assigned to work where your membership in the company Pride organization could get you jailed or worse. That’s the reality of today’s multi-national energy company.
Past as Prologue
Exxon has never had a particularly “maverick” reputation in the industry. What they have had is size — always have. Even prior to the purchase of Mobil, they were big enough to go head-to-head with even large state-owned companies. Their size allowed for a certain degree of “shaping the debate” and dictating terms.
Culturally, Exxon has been and continues to be known their internal regimentation. Marching orders from the top and salutes from the bottom: the archetype of hierarchical management that dated back to the days of Standard Oil more than a century ago. During the 1990’s most of the major oil companies had already followed Chevron’s lead and included sexual orientation in company non-discrimination policies. BP, Shell and Mobil also began providing domestic partnership benefits (DPB) soon after Chevron announced it would in 1997. Given Exxon’s size and culture, it was no surprise when Exxon did not follow suit. For the other companies, the movement towards LGBT equality in the workplace was driven (as it has nearly always been) by dedicated employees (LGBT and allies) willing to push for change.
At the same time, market pressures drove all the major oil & gas companies to start an industry-wide consolidation binge. Starting in 1999 and over the next few years, BP would acquire Amoco and Arco; Chevron would merge with Texaco; and Exxon would gobble up Mobil (along with a few other smaller companies). During this merger spree, it was usually the dominant organization that set most of the rules about what the new company would look like, where it would be headquartered and what the policies would be.
When Exxon acquired Mobil, it shocked the LGBT community by eliminating Mobil’s explicit non-discrimination policies and partnership benefits for those Mobil employees that hadn’t received them already. Except for those that were grandfathered, ExxonMobil would not provide DBP’s for its LGB employees. That policy has not changed to this day.
Almost immediately, there were calls for a boycott from the LGBT community. A web site went up, an email campaign was launched and there were many sternly written editorials in the LGBT press. When the HRC began publishing its Corporate Equality Index, ExxonMobil got a big zero rating as it has until this year when the new rating system gave them a minus 25.
A shareholder resolution to “force ExxonMobil” into “protecting its LGBT employees” gained traction and one has been introduced (to varying degrees of support) each year since 2000. In the run-up to these shareholder meetings, a variety of LGBT activist groups has taken center stage to denounce the evils of ExxonMobil’s actions vis-à-vis its LGBT employees. This year was no exception — the web site was updated and a Change.org petition was launched. Many activists picketed the annual stockholders meeting. And, after the inevitable failed vote, the LGBT outrage machine did its usual dance. FaceBook lit up and the LGBT blogosphere’s adherents once again intoned that “they would never buy ExxonMobil products”.
We’ve now had the experience of more than a decade of doing the same thing and expecting a different result. As Leslie Jordan’s character, “Brother Boy” in Sordid Lives remarked about a similar repetitive activity: “It ain’t a-workin.”
As I read and watched some of our community leaders’ reactions, I wondered if they are off in some little bubble somewhere. It’s pretty obvious that they haven’t actually talked to a real ExxonMobil employee – or anyone else from the oil & gas industry, much less the corporate world. I hear a lot of cross-talk, but don’t see a lot of outreach. It’s as if employment policy is viewed as abstraction and this annual exercise is a political game to score points (or raise money). If they had bothered to say, come to Houston, they might have gotten a little education in what’s actually happening in the oil & gas industry – including at ExxonMobil. They might have found out that employees from ExxonMobil have attended the Out & Equal Workplace Summit for the last few years – as a company-sanctioned activity. Or that they do have an LGBT employee group. Or that ExxonMobil does real community service, even in the LGBT community.
Even if they didn’t venture into the oil patch, getting a grounding into how LGBT workplace inclusion has happened over the last quarter century might change some thinking — because for every Cracker Barrel that changes policy due to protests, there are hundreds of companies that change because of one thing: their own LGBT and allied employees making the business case for inclusion. The business case for LGBT-inclusive workplace policies and practices is different for each company – every company is somewhat unique as to what their business drivers are. For some, it’s all about getting the LGBT dollar. For others, it’s about reputation. For most, it comes down to recruiting and retention… but whatever the reason, it’s tied to the bottom line.
What will make ExxonMobil change?
If 14 years of futility are any indication, shareholder initiatives, pickets and boycotts won’t do it. Demonizing the company won’t do it, either. Engagement will: the kind that has happened over and over and over, again at any number of companies that have worked through these issues. It’s the kind of engagement that is showcased in the Out & Equal Workplace Summit and that Out & Equal Houston tries to foster locally – not just at ExxonMobil, but across many industries that on the surface may appear to be “lost causes.”
Whether that’s through the aging out of upper and middle management (what we in the industry call the “great shift change”) or the growing realization that the competition for people and new opportunities is being lost to more progressive competitors, change is already happening.
So, my money is on my friends that work at ExxonMobil – straight, gay and transgender – that know the case that needs to be made and who has the influence to affect change.
In industry circles, ExxonMobil is often likened to a supertanker – huge, slow to move, slow to stop, slow to turn, but once committed and underway, everyone moves in the new direction. When it comes to LGBT issues, once ExxonMobil makes its decision to embrace equality, it will be quite the Pride Parade… and even though I work at a competitor, I’ll be there cheering them on.