Exxon Mobil is facing an employment discrimination lawsuit based on a legal strategy of resume audit testing that revealed an apparent anti-gay bias in hiring practices.
On Wednesday, the LGBT group Freedom to Work filed a complaint with the Illinois Human Rights Commission contending Exxon Mobil violated a 2005 law in the state prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people.
The case, Freedom to Work v. Exxon Mobil Corp., is novel because the employment discrimination alleged is the result of resume audit testing. Under the strategy, fictitious resumes are sent for the same job opening in an attempt to reveal a candidate belonging to a minority group is unable to land a position.
Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, said black and disability civil rights groups have employed the strategy with great success for decades, but his group’s lawsuit marks the first time an LGBT group has tried it.
“Although they went to the same high school, the LGBT candidate has a higher GPA,” Almeida said. “Although they went to the same college, the LGBT candidate has a higher GPA. Although they do the same kind of work, the LGBT person has longer work experience and better work experience. And then you see who they call back.”
In the test for anti-LGBT bias at Exxon Mobil — which has no non-discrimination policy protecting LGBT workers and has long been criticized by LGBT groups for alleged discrimination in hiring — Freedom to Work sent two applications in December from applicants for an administrative assistant position in Pataka, Ill.
One resume, written for “Jennifer Priston,” demonstrated a candidate who was well-qualified for the position, but outed her as LGBT because she had volunteer experience working for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund. The other resume, written for “Michelle Caland” was less qualified in terms of work experience and education, but offered no indication she was LGBT.
Even though Caland was less qualified, she received multiple call backs in response to her application. Priston never received a call back in response to her application even after Caland didn’t respond.
The results of the testing and the pending lawsuit, Almeida said, will force Exxon Mobil to explain why the company “so desperately” wanted the less qualified non-LGBT candidate over the more qualified LGBT applicant.
“We know that they cannot credibly claim that they didn’t receive the LGBT resume and application because when they were submitted, they sent back to both applicants a receipt acknowledgement saying, ‘Thank you for your application from Exxon Mobil,’” Almeida said. “They can’t claim they didn’t see it.”
Further, Almeida said Exxon Mobil can’t say it didn’t want an employee who had activist experience because the non-LGBT candidate said she worked for a local feminist organization, nor can the organization purport to have engaged in political bias because the candidates have left-leaning resumes.
The result of the testing uncovering apparent anti-gay basis is consistent with a 2011 study at Harvard University that found LGBT applicants were 40 percent less likely to be granted an interview than a straight applicant.
The lawsuit was filed a week before the shareholders at Exxon Mobil are set to consider a resolution from New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, whose state owns considerable shares in the company, to put in place an LGBT non-discrimination policy. The resolution has come up repeatedly over the years and each time has failed, including last year, when it won support from only 20.6 percent of shareholders.
To reach a settlement in the case, Almeida said he’s asking Exxon Mobil to adopt a company-wide LGBT non-discrimination policy and train its workers across the country on implementation.
“We hope that we will shame them into settling this very quickly,” Almeida said. “If they agree to adopting and training HR people on it, we will settle the case as quickly as we can.”
But if Exxon Mobil chooses to fight the lawsuit, Almeida said the case will go into discovery, which means Freedom to Work will subpoena internal documents from the company and depose staffers to expose anti-gay bias in hiring practices.
“No one has ever gotten an inside look as to what their HR professionals think and why they were taught these policies and why they’re existing,” Almeida said. “As the litigation proceeds, we will get to subpoena those internal documents, and we will get to depose the HR professionals and ask them all these questions.”
Charlie Engelmann, an Exxon Mobil spokesperson, said in response to the complaint from Freedom to Work that the company already has policies protecting LGBT workers.
“Exxon Mobil’s global policies and processes prohibit all forms of discrimination, including those based on sexual orientation and gender identity, in any company workplace, anywhere in the world,” Engelmann said. “In fact, our policies go well beyond the law and prohibit any form of discrimination. We are reviewing the complaint filed with the Illinois Department of Human Rights by Freedom to Work, a non-profit organization.”
Despite the response, Almeida pointed out the company made the same assertion last year prior to the failed vote on the non-discrimination policy — only to have it rejected by the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission.
“Prior to the vote on the resolution, Exxon asked the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission for permission to stop shareholders from voting on the resolution, based on Exxon’s view that it had already complied with the proposal,” Almeida said. “However, the SEC rejected Exxon’s request, explaining that ‘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.’”
Illinois was one of two states in which Freedom to Work uncovered apparent anti-gay bias in hiring practices. Almeida did the same paired resume testing in Texas and uncovered similar results at Exxon Mobil.
But Texas doesn’t have a statewide LGBT workplace non-discrimination law on which to base a lawsuit, and no federal non-discrimination protections are in place to help LGBT people. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act isn’t law, nor is an executive order in place prohibiting anti-LGBT bias among federal contractors.
Over the past 10 years, Exxon Mobil received more than $1 billion in federal contracts. If President Obama issued a much-sought executive order prohibiting anti-LGBT job bias among federal contractors, Freedom of Work could have asked the Labor Department to take action against the company.
Almeida emphasized that executive order would have provided Freedom to Work the opportunity to take action against the oil company in Texas as well as Illinois.
“If the president had signed the order, we would have filed the testing results from Texas with the Department of Labor and asked them to do an investigation, and asked them to order Exxon-Mobil to adopt an LGBT non-discrimination policy,” Almeida said. “This is an example of how the president’s delay is slowing down civil rights.”
The White House has said it prefers a legislative approach to addressing LGBT workplace discrimination. Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, reiterated in response to the lawsuit on Wednesday that he has nothing to say about the executive order.
“Regarding a hypothetical Executive Order on LGBT non-discrimination for federal contractors, I have no updates for you on that issue,” Inouye said.
The lawsuit is novel in another way because with no real persons suffering discrimination, the named plaintiff in the lawsuit is Freedom to Work itself. Most LGBT legal groups, like Lambda Legal, file complaints that name LGBT people who’ve faced discrimination as the plaintiff.
Almeida said organizational plaintiffs are acceptable under Illinois state law as well as alleged discrimination in response to paired resume testing. In the 2000 decision of Kyles v. J.K. Guardian Security Services, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Illinois upheld the right of testers to bring these claims after two black testers brought a race discrimination action to federal court. They were allowed to proceed to a trial and later settled their claims with the employer.
Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court has previously validated lawsuits on the basis of paired resume audit testing in its decisions on earlier litigation. In the 1982 case of Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman, the court held testers can sue to challenge housing discrimination and that groups conducting the testing can also file a lawsuit to remedy discrimination.
Also working with Freedom to Work on the testing was the Equal Rights Center, a D.C.-based advocacy organization, which has experience with resume testing for minority groups.
Donald Kahl, executive director of the Equal Rights Center, explained in a statement the validity of filing employment discrimination lawsuits based on testing and their applicability to LGBT people.
“Based on the Equal Rights Center’s 30 years of testing experience, and nearly 2,000 tests conducted in the last year, our testing methodologies are recognized and accepted by the civil rights community, government agencies, and the courts,” Kahl said. “The type of testing we conducted with Freedom to Work is a critical part of objectively demonstrating why our LGBT community needs and deserves anti-discrimination protections.”
The legal team representing Freedom to Work in the lawsuit is Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, a group that has experience representing women who alleged gender discrimination in employment at the retail giant Walmart Stores, Inc.
As the lawsuit proceeds, Almeida said Freedom to Work will continue testing for anti-LGBT workplace bias at other companies and take action as necessary.
“Our work is not completed,” Almeida said. “We’re going to test other companies, and if we find out about discrimination, we’re going to file additional lawsuits.”
Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, said the nation’s largest LGBT group also supports the lawsuit.
“HRC supports efforts to ensure that all LGBT Americans are judged at work based on how they perform, not on who they are,” Sainz said. “Those efforts include advocating for corporate policies, seeking recourse under state and local laws, and of course working to pass ENDA and a federal executive order.”