December 14, 2016 at 11:21 am EST | by Chris Johnson
Exxon faces anti-gay bias lawsuit as Trump taps CEO for State
Exxon, Mobil, gay news, Washington Blade

The Illinois Department of Human Rights has found “substantial evidence” of anti-gay discrimination at ExxonMobil.(Photo of Exxon sign by Ildar Sagdejev, photo of Mobil sign by Terence Ong; courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

President-elect Donald Trump has tapped for secretary of state Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil, a company that faces a lawsuit accusing it of anti-gay discrimination in its hiring practices.

ExxonMobil’s resistance to adopt LGBT non-discrimination protections until President Obama signed an executive order in 2014 barring federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers has been well documented. But the lawsuit, which explicitly claims anti-LGBT discrimination occurred at the company, hasn’t received much attention.

Freedom to Work, an LGBT group that lobbied President Obama to sign his executive order barring anti-LGBT discrimination among federal contractors, filed the complaint in 2013 against the oil-and-gas giant with the Illinois Human Rights Commission alleging the company violated a 2005 state law prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination.

The basis of the lawsuit is resume audit testing in which Freedom to Work sent two fictitious resumes to the company for the same job in Illinois. One was from a more qualified applicant who outed herself as LGBT by noting work at the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund; the other was a less qualified applicant who gave no indication about her sexual orientation or gender identity. The less qualified straight applicant received multiple call backs, the more qualified LGBT applicant did not.

Over the course of initial proceedings before the Illinois Department of Human Rights, Dona Steadman, an ExxonMobil human resources adviser, denied sexual orientation was a factor in the hiring decision. She testified she selected in the initial screening process 35 applicants out of the 51 who applied by “looking at their experience, not their volunteer work and their education.”

Nonetheless, in January 2015, the Illinois Department of Human Rights announced it found “substantial evidence” of anti-gay discrimination at ExxonMobil and enough for the case “to be heard before a trier of fact so that credibility can be determined.” That finding prompted Freedom to Work to file a complaint before the Illinois Human Rights Commission, where the litigation remains ongoing.

Mike Theodore, a spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Human Rights, confirmed for the Washington Blade late Monday “the matter is still pending before the Illinois Human Rights Commission,” but didn’t have any information on when it would be resolved.

The initial goal of the complaint was to compel ExxonMobil to adopt a non-discrimination policy for the LGBT employees and job applicants and to educate its managers and workforce on ensuring workers or potential workers aren’t subject to anti-LGBT discrimination.

At the time, ExxonMobil lacked such an explicit policy as part of its standards of conduct. In fact, shareholders of ExxonMobil consistently rejected LGBT non-discrimination at its annual meetings. In 2014, the rejection of one proposal sponsored by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who represented New York’s share in ExxonMobil, marked the 17th time ExxonMobil turned down LGBT non-discrimination protections.

It wasn’t until Obama signed an executive order barring federal contractors from engaging in anti-LGBT employment discrimination that ExxonMobil adopted for its workers an LGBT non-discrimination policy. The company has accrued more than $1 billion in federal contracts over the past decade.

With the LGBT non-discrimination policy in place at ExxonMobil, the lawsuit after the initial findings by the Illinois Department of Human Rights has taken on a goal of payment of legal expenses and affirmation the LGBT non-discrimination rule is enforced, but that would still require a finding of guilt as a result of the lawsuit from the Illinois Human Rights Commission.

ExxonMobil didn’t respond to repeated requests from the Washington Blade on Tuesday to comment on the ongoing case or any expectation for when it will be resolved. Neither Freedom to Work, nor the attorney that represented the organization in the case, Peter Romer-Friedman of Outten & Golden LLP, could immediately be reached.

At one point, ExxonMobil had an unprecedented score of “-25” on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index for its anti-LGBT policies. The company now scores “85” in 2017 after having adopted its LGBT non-discrimination rule and other policies. In 2013, ExxonMobil adopted spousal health and pension benefits for its employees in a same-sex marriage after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling against the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act.

Rena McDonald, a Las Vegas-based attorney and member of the LGBT workplace equality group Executive Pride, said the anti-gay policies of Tillerson are “further emphasized” by the Illinois finding “Exxon discriminated against a potential new hire who was better qualified for a position, simply because of their affiliations with the gay community.”

“Trump’s choice of Rex Tillerson as the secretary of state should be a serious concern for Americans worried about Equal Rights for all employees,” McDonald said. “Even though the LGBTQ community has made great strides in securing equal rights in other areas, the workplace remains an environment where discrimination not only still exists, but is legal in most states. This creates a hostile environment where you can now get married and then be legally fired for it.”

The Trump transition team didn’t respond to the Blade’s request for comment on whether the history of the anti-LGBT policy at ExxonMobil or the pending lawsuit filed by Freedom to Work predicts Tillerson would be hostile to LGBT rights as secretary of state.

Richard Johnson, a professor of public administration at the University of San Francisco, said the appointment of Tillerson as secretary of state with a lawsuit against his company alleging anti-gay discrimination “is lunacy and could provide long-term problems.”

“Though Exxon has a new set of LGBT protections, it is not clear as to the role Tillerson played in this new outcome for Exxon, or its motivations,” Johnson said. “The new secretary of state will have an active role in helping to shape foreign policy, especially on LGBT rights worldwide. I am not confident that Rex Tillerson will be the person to stand up to countries where a person can be imprisoned or killed for being LGBT. Indeed, his track record on stopping human rights violations is dubious at best.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

  • So Trump is inclusive! Ha Ha! An oil crony whose company is openly hostile to gay people in bed with a dictatorial crook named Putin who is a murderer and a homophobe himself. Some inclusive!

  • Are you also considering in your audit resume testing the perception of a more experienced person being more expensive compared to a less experienced candidate? I’m not saying there is no legitimate concern over bias, but companies often care more about the bottom line costs than someone with more experience.

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