NY comptroller pushes transgender corporate rights
Tuesday, May 29, 2012
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Texas-based oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp. stockholders will vote Wednesday on a proposed company policy to ban discrimination against gay or transgender workers, a shareholder resolution pushed by New York Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.
Using the $150 billion state pension fund's stock portfolio as influence, the comptroller's office said it has helped persuade 27 other big corporations to agree to new nondiscrimination policies, though several previous attempts at Exxon Mobil have failed. Holders of 20 percent of the company's shares supported a resolution last year. Language on transgender rights was added in 2008.
Fund investment officials remain undeterred, though the proposal may not pass again Wednesday. They note that losing at annual spring meetings can mean winning eventually when corporate management, which controls most voting shares, quietly makes the changes. Sometimes that happens through dialogue, or in advance of a potentially embarrassing vote, they said.
Exxon Mobil has called the measure unnecessary. It says the company is a "meritocracy" for its 82,000 workers worldwide, and that it already prohibits all forms of discrimination.
"The corporation administers its personnel policies, programs, and practices in a nondiscriminatory manner in all aspects of the employment relationship," its proxy statement said.
Company spokesman Bill Holbrook pointed to the anti-discrimination policy posted on the company website: "Our global, zero-tolerance policy applies to all forms of discrimination, including discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity." He noted that shareholder support for the resolution has declined from almost 40 percent in 2008, reflecting a growing understanding that its employment policies already conform.
DiNapoli, sole trustee of a retirement fund with about 16 million shares worth $1.3 billion, or less than 1 percent of the corporation's total, disagreed. He said that after Exxon acquired Mobil in 1999, it ended Mobil's policy of providing health benefits to same-sex partners except those previously covered. The company needs a clearer policy prohibiting discrimination that helps competitively with recruiting the best talent and creates a secure working environment and reduces risk, he said.
"There's that double bottom line where you're doing something that ensures the investment does well — that's the first priority," DiNapoli said. "And it does something good in terms of a broader objective that benefits society — that's certainly positive."
The Securities and Exchange Commission rejected a company proposal to block the resolution in March. "Based on the information you have presented, it appears that Exxon Mobil's policies, practices and procedures do not compare favorably with the guidelines or the proposal and that Exxon Mobil has not, therefore, substantially, implemented the proposal," the agency said.
The resolution says the shareholders are asking the corporation to amend "its written equal employment opportunity policy to explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and to substantially implement the policy."
According to the comptroller's office, letters requesting similar policies were sent last year to many Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies in its portfolio. Several of the larger ones failed to respond and were sent shareholder filings. Nine subsequently agreed to adopt new policies, including Roper Industries and Catalyst Health Solutions. A shareholder resolution at American Financial Group went to a vote and got 26.4 percent support.
The New York comptroller's office, with shares in other corporations that usually make up less than 1 percent of the totals, has pressed many to adopt measures requiring disclosure of their political spending and determining environmental damage, including possible future harm from a company's activities and potential liabilities for cleanups and lawsuits. That includes assessing wastewater dumping from mining and drilling, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and chemical exposures from hydraulic fracturing.
The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility listed the transgender rights resolution at Exxon Mobil among 160 proposals sponsored by its members at 115 companies in 2012. While the comptroller's office works with the group on issues, it is not a member, DiNapoli spokesman Eric Sumberg said.
According to the Empire State Pride Agenda, last year 32 of the 57 New York-based Fortune 500 companies were including gender identity and expression in their equal employment opportunity policies, as were 229 of all Fortune 500 companies.
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