Big oil companies say they support gay rights, but operate in more than 40 countries that criminalize same-sex behavior. It leaves some LGBTQ workers caught between 2 worlds.

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Big oil companies say they support gay rights, but operate in more than 40 countries that criminalize same-sex behavior. It leaves some LGBTQ workers caught between 2 worlds.
Cabot Oil and Gas workers at a hydraulic fracturing site in South Montrose, PennsylvaniaSpencer Platt/Getty Images
  • Multinational oil companies have made huge strides in their support for LGBTQ rights in the Western world, but some of the largest oil reserves are in countries where it's illegal to be gay.
  • That puts these companies — which have global operations and tens of thousands of employees — in a challenging position.
  • They face a tension between upholding their own antidiscrimination policies and abiding by local laws, with LGBTQ employees caught in the middle.
  • Are you an LGBTQ employee in the oil-and-gas industry? Reach out to this reporter at bjones@businessinsider.com or +1-646-768-1657.

Over the past decade, in step with national laws, the American oil-and-gas industry has made great strides in its support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer employees.

In 2011, Chevron became the first major oil company to extend healthcare benefits to transgender workers. A few years later, LGBTQ employees at Exxon — long considered a laggard regarding LGBTQ inclusion — received protection against discrimination and benefits for spouses.

Today, Chevron, Shell, BP, and ConocoPhillips, four of the largest energy companies, all received perfect 100 scores in the Human Rights Campaign's national corporate equality index, indicating that these companies have policies and a culture that support LGBTQ workers. Exxon received a score of 85, up from a negative score in 2014.

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Support for gay employees, however, becomes more complicated outside the Western world.

Many regions home to large oil and gas deposits, such as Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, outlaw same-sex relations and certain forms of gender expression, putting big energy companies with global operations and tens of thousands of employees in a challenging position.

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"Which culture comes first?" Deena Fidas, managing director at Out and Equal, a US nonprofit focused on workplace equality, said. "Is it the multinational corporation's culture of inclusion, or is it the broader national cultural context that may be exclusive to LGBTQ people? That's a real source of tension."

LGBTQ employees are caught in that tension. And in regions where it's illegal to be gay, Fidas added, nondiscrimination policies are not enough.

We want to hear from you. Are you an LGBTQ employee in the energy industry? Reach out to this reporter at +1-646-768-1657 or at bjones@businessinsider.com. See here for other ways to contact them.

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Big oil companies say they support gay rights, but operate in more than 40 countries that criminalize same-sex behavior. It leaves some LGBTQ workers caught between 2 worlds.
PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images

Walking the line

The world's largest Western oil companies including BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon, Schlumberger, Shell, and Total have operations in more than 40 countries with anti-LGBTQ laws, according to a Business Insider review.

We analyzed the countries in which each of these oil companies operates, according to their websites, and compared it to Human Rights Watch's list of countries that outlaw same-sex relations or ban certain forms of gender expression. You can see the full breakdown below.

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Nigeria, for example, is an oil industry hotspot where Shell, Exxon, Chevron, Total, and Schlumberger all have operations. In Nigeria, same-sex conduct and certain forms of gender expression are criminalized, and in some regions the maximum penalty for sex between men is death, according to HRW.

Multinational oil companies say that their nondiscrimination policies and company values extend beyond corporate headquarters, assuming they're not in violation of local laws.

"Within our walls, the expectation is the same, no matter what the laws are outside," Lee Jourdan, Chevron's chief diversity officer, told Business Insider in July. "We have to respect the laws of the countries that we serve in."

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"Chevron has a longstanding commitment to respecting human rights wherever we operate," Veronica Flores-Paniagua, a company representative, said in a statement.

A representative at Shell shared a similar statement: LGBTQ inclusion is a global value, a company representative said, but the business must comply with local laws.

Schlumberger, Total, and ConocoPhillips did not respond to a request for comment. Exxon said it "undertakes special efforts" to create a harassment-free workplace.

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Complying with local laws while supporting LGBTQ workers can be a tough line to toe, said Graeme Reid, who leads HRW's program for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights. In some regions, a pro-LGBTQ stance "is not only seen very negatively but it also runs contrary to the laws and policies in place in the countries in which they work."

Big oil companies say they support gay rights, but operate in more than 40 countries that criminalize same-sex behavior. It leaves some LGBTQ workers caught between 2 worlds.
Members of gay and lesbian organizations outside the Nigerian High Commission in Nairobi in 2014SIMON MAINA/AFP via Getty Images

Antidiscrimination policies 'necessary but not sufficient'

Companies with clearly defined nondiscrimination policies and values can offer refuge and visibility to LGBTQ workers within oppressive countries, Reid said.

Suki, a Malaysia-based engineer at a multinational oil company, told Business Insider that while she couldn't talk about being gay with her family, she was out to her closest coworkers. Malaysia, where nearly all large Western oil companies have operations, criminalizes same-sex conduct and some forms of gender expression.

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"Lucky enough, it's an international company," Suki said. "You get hired, and you get educated by the company in terms of policies. Based on policy, there's no discrimination." (Suki asked that we use only her first name and not reveal the company to protect her privacy. We have verified her identity and place of employment.)

It's clear that nondiscrimination policies don't go far enough in countries that outlaw same-sex conduct, Fidas said. There are a variety of additional actions companies can take, she said, from establishing LGBTQ employee resource groups to forming business units responsible for LGBTQ inclusion.

"A company's nondiscrimination policy is necessary but not sufficient for inclusion," she said. "How many more years are we going to tolerate a glaring gap between a policy on paper in these regions and the daily reality for LGBTQ workers?"

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Suki said that she reveals her identity only to a coworker if she knows they won't have a problem with her being gay. Otherwise, she keeps it to herself.

It is a common experience among LGBTQ workers at progressive companies within oppressive countries, according to a 2016 report published by the Center for Talent Innovation, a think tank focused on workplace diversity and talent.

Of about 200 LGBTQ workers surveyed in the report in each of Russia, India, and Singapore — countries dubbed "LGBT-hostile" in the study — 67% to 80% remained closeted at work. That number was 46% and 53% in the US and the UK, respectively.

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We want to hear from you: Are you an LGBTQ employee in the energy industry? Reach out to this reporter at +1-646-768-1657 or at bjones@businessinsider.com. See here for other ways to contact them.

Big oil companies say they support gay rights, but operate in more than 40 countries that criminalize same-sex behavior. It leaves some LGBTQ workers caught between 2 worlds.
OPEC, the alliance of oil-producing nations, includes countries that outlaw same-sex relations, such as UAE, Nigeria, and Qatar.Saudi Press Agency/Handout via Reuters

The responsibility companies bear

Multinational companies have "extraordinary opportunities" to advance equality in LGBTQ-hostile regions, the CTI report said, but it's unclear what actions they're taking.

None of the seven companies Business Insider reached for this story responded to questions about specific steps they've taken to support their LGBTQ employees in countries where same-sex relations are outlawed, beyond pointing to internal policies and commitments.

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Most oil companies have LGBTQ employee resource groups, according to their websites, which "play a vital lifeline for LGBTQ and allied employees," Fidas said. Companies can also go beyond that by publicly supporting the local gay community and by centralizing their support for gay workers.

"What that means is, if you relocate or if you are in country and you are LGBTQ, you have a named person or office that you can contact," Fidas said. "That is a very different level of accountability than, you know, 'Let's have a nondiscrimination policy and hope for the best.'"

Do you have a tip related to diversity and inclusion at any of the companies mentioned in this story? Reach out to this reporter at bjones@businessinsider.com or through the secure messaging app Signal at +1-646-768-1657.

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