Society has Evolved regarding Same-Sex Equality, Now It’s Time for Business to Do the Same

Commentary, 04 July 2013

By John Morrison, Chief Executive, IHRB

A couple embrace outside the Federal Supreme Court, awaiting the historic decision. Photo: Flickr/CoolRevolution

Last week, the United States Supreme Court ruled, by a majority of 5-4, that the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 was unconstitutional. That law stipulated that the state would recognize a union as “marriage” only if it is between a man and a woman. The rationale was political – to keep same-sex relationships outlawed.

This was inherently discriminatory; it meant loving relationships between people of the same sex would not get recognized as marriage. It also meant that they would not be able to get legal relief if their employers refused to extend to them the benefits granted to heterosexual couples or families, such as health coverage.

But societies evolve, and American society changed. By late 1990s, celebrities, athletes, business executives, professionals, and politicians, among many others began coming out, acknowledging their sexual orientation in public, making it easier for many others, who may have earlier felt intimidated by prevailing social norms, to assert their identity. And soon, companies began to recognize the social change and acceptance. Today, some 88 percent of Fortune 500 companies have written policies outlawing discrimination, prohibiting harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation, in their equal employment opportunity policies. Even before the judgment last week, 21 states, the District of Columbia, and 160 American cities and counties had passed laws and rules that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation. After the Supreme Court judgment last week, there can be no further excuse.

And yet, Exxon Mobil, ranked at the top of Fortune 500 list of the world’s largest companies last year, has continued to hold out against extending its non-discrimination policy to include same-sex relationships. As The New York Times reported in May, for 14 years socially-responsible investors have tabled resolutions at the company’s annual general meetings, seeking to amend the company’s policy to include sexual orientation, and the company has resisted. The measure tends to get nearly two out of five shareholder votes, which is remarkable for such initiatives.

In the past, the company had actively resisted efforts to change the policy – when Exxon acquired Mobil, it rewrote the non-discrimination policy, because Mobil used to offer benefits to same-sex couples. According to the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equity Index of 1000 leading corporations, Exxon Mobil got a score of negative 25 out of a possible score of 100, placing it at the bottom. This has implications for one of the company’s core requirements – attracting top talent. Young graduates, gay or not, look for employment in places that not only pay them well and offer good opportunities, but which treat all employees equally and with respect.

I am not suggesting that Exxon Mobil is inhospitable for employees in same-sex relationships. Indeed, in countries where such relationships are legal, it offers all benefits to all employees, regardless of sexual orientation. And the New York Times report also acknowledges that current and former employees talk of a hospitable environment where they have not heard of any complaints about discrimination. Gay employees have an internal organization. But the company has not moved.

It is time to do so now. Exxon Mobil's website says:

“Our approach to human rights is consistent with the policy framework outlined in the 2008 report of John Ruggie, the United Nations Special Representative on Business and Human Rights. That framework recognizes the distinctly different roles of government and business with regard to human rights — the government’s duty to protect human rights and corporations' responsibility to respect them. The United Nations Framework and Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights was released in 2011 to provide further guidance on implementing the “protect, respect, remedy” framework. These Guiding Principles emphasize operational due diligence: corporations should be aware of potential adverse impacts and implement prevention measures.”

Operational due diligence here would mean taking effective steps to ensure that the respect each employee deserves, and his or her dignity, are not undermined, and he or she not only get equal pay for equal work, but equal benefit for equal work.

Exxon Mobil’s commitment towards human rights is serious: its statement goes on to enumerate various standards to which the company adheres, including IPIECA’s work to address the Guiding Principles within the oil and gas sector. Exxon Mobil also supports other initiatives, including the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative and the Voluntary Principles for Security and Human Rights. It trains its employees in human rights and has taken steps to ensure that its policies are consistent with the International Labor Organization (ILO)’s 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, specifically regarding the elimination of child labour, forced labour and workplace discrimination. While the ILO conventions that underpin non-discrimination do not specifically mention sexual orientation, subsequent work at the ILO – in particular its 2007 report, Equality at Work: Tackling the Challenges, shows that the intent of the original declaration is consistent with emerging concerns, such as the status of employees with disability, their HIV status, or sexual orientation.

Exxon Mobil should quickly make amends because it is the right decision to do so – morally and legally. In the end, the idea of human rights rests on the basic premise of equality. We are all born equal. As human beings we enjoy the same rights, and any infringement of our rights is wrong.

Related Commentary:

Latest IHRB Publications

The Start of Modern Corporate Accountability Efforts - In Memory of Joel Filártiga

It is an unfortunate reality that when human rights defenders speak against their governments, they place themselves at risk of harm. Still, some choose to speak, and in doing so they change the course of history.

Dr Joel Filártiga was one such...

25 July 2019

Human Rights and the Built Environment - A Call for Action

Two-thirds of humanity are projected to live in urban areas by 2050. If we are to make progress in reducing global inequality and in meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals, a rights-based approach to the built environment is critical. 


Rights and Wrongs - Where Does the Buck Stop?

Last week, Bank of America announced that it would no longer lend to companies that run the controversial centres where the United States Government is detaining refugees and migrants who have entered the country without proper documentation  (such...