The US government sued Exxon Mobil for racial discrimination against a Black employee after the company allegedly failed to adequately respond to the appearance of five hangman’s nooses at a Louisiana petrochemical plant over several years.
Exxon “failed to take prompt measures reasonably calculated to end the harassment,” the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said in a federal lawsuit filed Thursday in Louisiana. “Exxon Mobil’s actions and omissions regarding the noose incidents created a racially hostile work environment,” the EEOC said in a statement.
The agency accused Exxon of engaging in unlawful employment practices in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The suit was filed after a failed attempt by the government to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process.
“We disagree with the EEOC’s findings and allegations,” Exxon spokesman Todd Spitler said in an email, adding that “symbols of hate are unacceptable, offensive and in violation of our corporate policies.”
Exxon “promptly performed a thorough investigation of this claim, and there was no evidence to support allegations of discrimination,” Spitler said.
“Anyone found to have violated these standards or applicable laws are terminated,” he said. The company has a “zero-tolerance policy for any form of harassment or discrimination” and it “established multiple ways for employees, contractors, suppliers, or customers to safely report incidents of this nature,” he said.
Began in 2016
The EEOC said the oil giant investigated some but not all of the incidents, which began in April 2016, causing the behavior to continue at the Baton Rouge plant. Human Resources was never notified after the second noose was found in March 2019, according to the suit.
A third noose found in August 2019 led to an Exxon investigation, but the company didn’t act on any of the recommended remedial measures, the EEOC said. The Black worker, Milferd McGhee, found another noose in January 2020 at his work site, and a fifth appeared in December 2020, the EEOC said.
“Exxon Mobil knew or should have known that the measures it had taken to prevent hangman’s nooses were ineffective and that additional measures were necessary to prevent further harassment,” EEOC said in the filing.
“Exxon Mobil’s actions were malicious and/or in reckless disregard of Mr. McGhee’s federally protected right to be free from racial discrimination in the workplace.”
The case comes as the company struggles to retain talent. Bloomberg previously reported that of the 12,000 employees who left the company in the past two years, less than half were from layoffs. Many workers who departed the company alleged the company’s culture was toxic.
“Even isolated displays of racially threatening symbols are unacceptable in American workplaces,” Michael Kirkland, director of the EEOC’s New Orleans Field Office, said in a statement.
The case is EEOC v. Exxon, 3:23-cv-00159, US District Court, Middle District of Louisiana.