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Rethinking ExxonMobil

Past as Prologue
It’s always helpful to know a little history to understand how (and why) things are as they are today. In the case of ExxonMobil, it also helps to have some oil & gas industry insider’s perspective as well.

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 (Exxon being the exception in both cases.)

Exxon has never had a particularly “maverick” reputation in the industry. What they have had is size. Always have. Which meant that unless they were going head-to-head with another company the same size or bigger (which back then meant only government-owned national oil companies), they were going to dictate terms. They were also known for 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.

In 1999 all the major oil & gas companies started an industry-wide consolidation binge. During the next couple of 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.

What shocked the LGBT community during this consolidation was when Exxon bought Mobil, they eliminated Mobil’s explicit non-discrimination policies and eliminated domestic 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.

Cue the Outrage Machine
Almost immediately, there were calls for a boycott from the LGBT community. HRC created a web site, email campaign 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 effect) each year since 1999.
2012 marks the 14th year that shareholders have voted overwhelmingly to reject such resolutions.

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. GetEqual was banging drums. Some new organization called “Freedom to Work” created a petition. HRC chimed in as usual.

And after the inevitable failed vote, the LGBT outrage machine did its usual dance. FaceBook lit up with the normal sturm & drang… and the LGBT blogosphere’s adherents once again intoned that “they would never buy ExxonMobil products”.

14 years of the same with no different results. To quote Brother Boy from Sordid Lives, “It ain’t a-workin.”

When I listen to some of the activist leaders (like Tico Almeida from Freedom to Work), I begin to wonder 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. 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.

My money is on my friends that work there – straight and gay – that know the case that needs to be made and who has the influence to affect change. 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.

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.

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Left of center Houstonian working in the energy industry and in his spare time on LGBT equality. Current co-Chair of Out & Equal Houston, a regional affliate of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates.