Tillerson’s Commitment to Racial Diversity Has History at Exxon

  • Minorities hold 30% of Exxon management and professional jobs
  • State Department’s senior foreign service is 12% minority

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

Photographer: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pledged this month to promote more people of color into leadership roles in his agency. His track record during 11 years at the helm of Exxon Mobil Corp. suggests he means it.

At Exxon, people of color make up 30 percent of management and professional staff -- a stark contrast with the State Department’s senior foreign service staff, which is 12 percent minority.

"We need a State Department that reflects the American people, reflects who we are," Tillerson said in an August 18 speech to participants in the department’s student programs and fellowships in Washington. "The State Department must redouble our efforts to increase diversity at the highest ranks of the Department, including at the ambassador level."

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Tillerson said he will ensure at least one minority candidate is considered for any new ambassador appointment, a public commitment to racial diversity that stood out after President Donald Trump was criticized by Democrats, Republicans and prominent CEOs for failing to unambiguously condemn violent neo-Nazi demonstrators in Virginia. Without mentioning Trump, Tillerson spoke about the importance of racial tolerance and opposition to bigotry, quoting George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Recalling his years in business, the former oilman said he appreciated the value of having people of color in leadership positions because they bring different cultural perspectives and “will see things in the world that I cannot see.”

Women’s Roles

On gender, the highest levels of the State Department look more like Tillerson’s Exxon. Women hold about 28 percent of the specialist roles at the agency, compared with about 32 percent of leadership jobs at Exxon, the world’s largest oil explorer by market value.

"Workforce diversity at the US State Department is extremely poor, which is deeply unfortunate given the global nature of the US State Department and its dependence on a diverse workforce," Cid Wilson, chief executive officer of the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility, said in an email. Less than 10 percent of senior State Department roles are held by Hispanics. “I’m glad Secretary Tillerson recognizes that this is a serious problem."

Exxon had a more rocky relationship with groups representing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender workers. The Irving, Texas-based company opted to end benefits and specific protective language at Mobil when it merged with Exxon in 1999.

Tillerson became CEO in 2006. Exxon added gay marriage benefits in 2014, restored protective employment language in 2015 and added transgender coverage in 2016. The company scored 85 out of 100 in the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index in 2016, his last year as CEO, an improvement from 40 the year before and near zero when he took the reins.

Tillerson, who also led the Boy Scouts from 2010 to 2012, is credited with laying the groundwork for the group allowing gay scouts starting in 2013. The Human Rights Campaign had no comment on Exxon or Tillerson.

— With assistance by Joe Carroll, and Nick Wadhams

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