June 9, 2021
Good morning, from London.
As Eamon was kind enough to mention last week, I recently spent months immersed in the world of Exxon Mobil, for a feature in our Fortune 500 issue.
That story got another shot of news since it was first published, as a third member of Engine No. 1’s slate was elected to the board, after Exxon’s fateful AGM. The result is a shareholder saber-rattling that continues to reverberate weeks after the meeting. It wasn’t just a warning shot for the oil and gas industry, but for big companies across the board, as the ramifications of climate change burst into boardrooms in a real way.
But there were a few elements that didn’t make it into the final story, including a question that I asked every current and former employee of the company that I spoke to: could you talk about climate change at work?
The results were mixed—a couple people, especially younger employees, said they could, and did, and never found the topic to be off-limits no matter who they were speaking to. But many others paused.
“I almost felt like it was like politics or religion,” said one employee. “You don’t talk climate change at work.”
“It was kind of a taboo subject,” said another.
“There was almost no point,” said a third.
It wasn’t officially off limits, and the people who were doing the talking (or not) were not ill-informed. Exxon, like many oil and gas companies, employs scores of scientists, and plenty of those scientists have advanced backgrounds in environmental and geoscience.
In fact, employees did ask hard questions about climate change, alternative energy, and the company’s strategy for adapting or speaking about the topic, including in public forums, like town halls. But they tended to do so anonymously, screen shots showed. When someone did broach the subject openly, one person said it tended to provoke a collective intake of breath.
“I’ve seen people asking career limiting questions,” the person said. “They might not get fired, but 150 people will sit there and cringe and think, your next review will not be good.”
Exxon, it’s worth noting, disagrees with this depiction—the company says employees can and do speak openly about climate change and alternative energy, and Darren Woods, the CEO, said employees have come directly to him to express their concerns. No one I spoke to told me a supervisor or other senior figure had told them not to speak about it, and some managers were actively supportive of open conversations.
But the whole idea got me thinking. It could be easy to think the topic felt touchy purely because this is an oil and gas company, where questions about the future of oil consumption can feel personal—bringing up questions not just about the future of that job, but whether that person spent their career in a meaningful way.
But several employees, especially in Texas, said the topic wasn’t just awkward within Exxon—it was the political or ideological divisions the words “climate change” could hit on, opening a painful seam of potential disagreement, when everyone is just trying to do their jobs and get along.
We’ve known for a long time that there are partisan divides over climate change—and this is the case outside of the U.S., too, including in the oil province of Alberta, Canada, where I grew up. Outright climate denial, however, has become increasingly uncommon: a survey by Resources for the Future, which came out in October, found a majority of Americans from both parties now agree on the fundamentals of a warming climate.
It’s the specifics—like how bad the problem actually is, how far the climate has already changed, and how to fix it—that tend to throw open a chasm, making the topic easier to not even broach.
So, I’m interested to hear: Do you talk about climate change at work? How do you talk about it, and with whom? Send me an email, and tell me your thoughts.
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