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Amidst the rising social tensions in America, the Supreme Court has ruled to extend federal rights civil protections to millions of workers nationwide.
“An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions that would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote.
The 6-3 opinion and decision came in several cases brought by gay and transgender employees. Both Gorsuch, a Trump appointee, and Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative appointed by President George W. Bush, joined the majority.
“This decision is an example of putting humanity over politics. When you stop doing things for political reasons and start doing them because they are right for human ones, we as a people can accomplish amazing things,” says Michael Pearce.
Pearce, an openly-gay Houston attorney, in the oil and gas industry for over a decade and former head of HR Compliance in North America for a major oilfield services company, has spent his entire career investigating, educating and counseling regarding discrimination.
“Every company in every industry, regardless of its size, has various forms of discrimination within it. It’s not a discussion about whether discrimination exists; it’s about what you do when you discover it,” says Pearce. “Having this decision as a bright line that discrimination against the LGBTQIA community is no longer permissible is a huge step for our community and our industry.”
Some landmark decisions prior to this week’s decision include:
- Lawrence versus Texas (2003) – The Supreme Court ruled that American laws prohibiting private homosexual activity between consenting adults are unconstitutional.
- LGBTQ same sex marriages (2015) – The Supreme Court struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage, legalized it in all fifty states, and required states to honor out-of-state same-sex marriage licenses.
- LGBTQ adoption in the United States (2017) – This ruling ordered all states to treat same-sex couples equally to opposite-sex couples in the issuance of birth certificates. These court rulings have made adoption by same-sex couples legal in all 50 states.
“I remember when I graduated from law school I was warned to stay closeted otherwise I could not only get fired but I could lose my law license,” says Pearce.
Despite this advice, Pearce, who came out of the closet in law school, remained out of the closet his entire legal career. He credits his success despite his controversial decision to living in Houston, citing that it’s a more ‘diverse city’ than most.
At the same time, Pearce’s now-husband graduated from law school and worked for a company that consulted to energy companies. When his husband came out at work, he wasn’t fired, but he was told the decision would limit his advancement at the company because the energy executives with which he interacted wouldn’t accept working with someone who was openly gay.
The Corporate Equality Index measures workplaces
The Human Rights Campaign, is the largest national lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer civil rights organization, that publishes the Corporate Equality Index which looks at LGBTQ equality in the workplace. Some of the largest energy operators scored 85 or higher than 100 in the 2020 report.
Energy companies have a long way to go in creating an equal workplace and Pearce thinks the recent ruling and uprising in the country around race is an opportunity to accelerate its representation.
“Energy companies need to stop reiterating their commitment to their anti-discrimination policies and instead listen and then go back and test that commitment by looking inward to see if they are actually following their own policies. If they aren’t identifying failures or growth opportunities, they aren’t doing enough,” says Pearce.
Thankfully a great many in the energy industry are already ahead of this Supreme Court decision in their policies. For the rest, now is a time to get up to speed and for all to ensure those policies are uniformly enforced. Failure to do so could put them at the forefront of the new wave of HR litigation that will seek to refine this Supreme Court decision.