Oil and gas giant ExxonMobil must reinstate two previously fired employees and pay them more than $800,000 in back wages, interest, and compensatory damages after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) determined the terminations to be illegal.
OSHA’s ruling, announced Friday, follows a federal whistleblower investigation into the actions of ExxonMobil. The probe found the company violated provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX).
OSHA is a division of the U.S. Department of Labor.
ExxonMobil fired two computation scientists who raised concerns about the company’s inclusion of increased drilling speed assumptions in filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2019, according to OSHA. Their termination followed a September 2020 report from the Wall Street Journal alleging ExxonMobil overhyped production estimates of oil and gas in the Texas Permian Basin.
The report cited current and former employees as sources; ExxonMobil suspected the two computation scientists despite neither being named in the article.
“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 agency stated. One of the scientists was fired for mishandling proprietary company information, while the other was let go for “having a ‘negative attitude,’ looking for other jobs, and losing the confidence of company management.”
Even if the scientists had been sources for the newspaper report or leaked information to the publication, their actions would have been protected under SOX, said OFAC.
“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 in a press release. “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.”
ExxonMobil could not be reached for comment.