The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration ordered ExxonMobil to immediately reinstate two employees and pay them more than $800,000 in back wages, interest and compensatory damages.
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A federal whistleblower investigation found the company terminated them illegally after suspecting them of leaking information to the Wall Street Journal.
In September 2020, the Wall Street Journal alleged the global oil-and-gas company may have inflated production estimates and the reported value of oil and gas wells in the Texas Permian Basin.
The newspaper reported ExxonMobil’s assumption that drilling speed would increase substantially in the next five years may have been inaccurate. These assumptions were included in company filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in 2019.
OSHA’s investigation found ExxonMobil fired two computational scientists who raised concerns about the company’s use of the assumptions in late 2020.
The company claimed it terminated one of the scientists for mishandling proprietary company information and the second for having a “negative attitude,” looking for other jobs, and losing the confidence of company management.
OSHA learned that ExxonMobil knew that one of the scientists was a relative of a source quoted in the Wall Street Journal article and had access to the leaked information.
The investigation determined that the communication with the newspaper, related to alleged company violations, is protected activity under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
The act also protects the scientists despite ExxonMobil’s belief that they had access and possibly leaked information to the publication. Neither was revealed as a source for the article.
“ExxonMobil’s actions are unacceptable. The integrity of the U.S. financial system relies on companies to report their financial condition and assets accurately,” said Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health Doug Parker.
“Whistleblower protection is integral to ensuring that financial disclosure laws work. As was the case in this instance, OSHA will aggressively protect the rights of employees who raise concerns related to financial improprieties or potential fraud against shareholders.” ■