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At Exxon, looks can be deceiving
Recent investigations reveal a toxic, stifling workplace where executives sacrifice ethics in an attempt to keep up profits and appearances.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
Last week, ExxonMobil announced its biggest quarterly profit of all time. The largest producer of oil and gas in the United States reeled in $19.7 billion over the course of three months — its second quarter of record-breaking earnings amid sky-high prices at the pump.
But despite its colossal profits and a decades-long legacy of attracting top talent, the company is becoming an increasingly undesirable place to work, according to a number of recent reports.
While the oil and gas industry at large is having trouble luring young people into its seemingly short-sighted mission, it is also struggling to retain workers, according to reporting from Grist. As a slew of other recent investigations have revealed, these tensions are heightened at Exxon in particular, where a conservative, insular, and hierarchical culture has reportedly stymied various forms of progress and where factual data is sometimes rejected or ignored in favor of protecting profits; where public communications — whether about climate change or oil and gas production or the company’s allyship and commitment to diversity — are at odds with internal realities; and where retaliation, performance ranking systems that prioritize obedience and cultural homogeneity over truth, and other toxic workplace practices abound. These are just some of the reasons the company is experiencing its highest rate of attrition in more than 20 years.
For scientists at ExxonMobil, these workplace issues are compounded by a long history of how Exxon undermines scientific findings that could warrant regulatory action. While Exxon was once seen as a mecca for scientific prowess and opportunity, its executives have gained a reputation for ignoring company scientists and punishing them for speaking out, famously downplaying and obscuring its own employees’ warnings about the “catastrophic” consequences of burning fossil fuels. As documented in state and municipal lawsuits, an ongoing congressional investigation, and various peer-reviewed studies, the company is still lying to the public about its investments in renewable energy and commitment to climate solutions. Exxon continues to invest in new carbon-intensive projects and insist that fossil fuels will be needed well into the future, despite scientific consensus that the continued burning of oil and gas will result in serious planetary harm. A former lobbyist for Exxon even admitted that the company “aggressively [fought] against some of the science” while lobbying against emissions reduction policies.
Enrique Rosero, a scientist and technical expert at Exxon for more than a decade, is especially familiar with the company’s handling of dissent. Rosero was consistently ranked among the top-third of employees until he raised concerns about Exxon leadership’s failure to move its business away from oil and gas, according to reporting from VICE News. After speaking out, Rosero received backlash and demotions, and was given the option of going on a three-month “Performance Improvement Plan” (PIP), during which he could be fired at any time. In July of 2020, he resigned.
“There’s a direct connection to the way the corporation treats you until you disagree with whatever they want you to say,” Rosero told me. “You can be recognized as an expert until you raise an issue, then you get shunned and treated like you don’t know what you are talking about."
Exxon was once seen as a fountain of resources and expertise, where scientists sought to launch and serve out their careers. The company traditionally recruited its prestigious scientists from elite universities across the country, targeting students with backgrounds in geoscience to sign up for internships or full-time positions just after graduation. But today, the oil giant’s recruitment efforts are yielding furious pushback, with students citing Exxon’s role in the climate crisis and its misleading public commitments to lowering its emissions as reasons why it shouldn’t be allowed on campus at all.
At recent recruitment events at Harvard and MIT, protestors outnumbered students looking for jobs. “They used to have first dibs at cream of the crop talent, and now those new grads don’t want to work for Exxon,” said Rosero. “No one wants to endure the toxicity that has now been widely reported.”
In response to President Biden’s criticism, and threats that the company would face a windfall profits tax for price gouging and war profiteering, Exxon CEO Darren Woods responded by claiming that the company’s record-breaking profits somehow benefit everyone in America.
“There has been discussion in the U.S. about our industry returning some of our profits directly to the American people. That’s exactly what we’re doing in the form of our quarterly dividend,” Woods said. But in reality, Exxon is funneling those profits to investors rather than using them to help workers or American families.
The facets of Exxon’s toxic workplace culture — most recently covered in investigations by Bloomberg, the Washington Post, and by us in partnership with Atmos — range from the company’s questionable ranking process, to its treatment of queer employees and employees of color, to its retaliation against employees who spoke out against the company’s fraud. It’s unlikely that fatter profits — which so far have landed in the hands of executives and shareholders, and which come at the expense of a burning planet — will cover up the company’s crumbling facade.
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