ExxonMobil must immediately reinstate two fired employees suspected of leaking information to The Wall Street Journal and provide them more than $800,000 in damages, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced in a press release Friday.
OSHA said the two employees, both computational scientists for ExxonMobil, were illegally terminated for raising concerns that the company’s assumptions about drill speed projections were inaccurate. Per OSHA, ExxonMobil knew that one of the employees was a relative of a source quoted in a Wall Street Journal article that mentioned the projections.
The agency added that ExxonMobil claimed it fired one of the scientists for mishandling proprietary information and the other for having a “negative attitude,” but OSHA said an investigation showed the employees’ communication with the Journal constituted protected activity under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. Neither employee had been revealed as a source for the article, OSHA noted.
Following publication of the initial September 2020 article that referenced the drill speed projections information, The Wall Street Journal reported in January 2021 that the Securities and Exchange Commission had opened a probe into the company. The probe followed a whistleblower complaint alleging that ExxonMobil had overvalued one of its U.S. oil and gas assets, per the Journal.
“ExxonMobil’s actions are unacceptable. The integrity of the U.S. financial system relies on companies to report their financial condition and assets accurately,” Doug Parker, OSHA’s assistant secretary for occupational safety and health, said in a statement. “Whistleblower protection is integral to ensuring that financial disclosure laws work.”
In an email to HR Dive, ExxonMobil spokesperson Casey Norton said the company rejected all claims made by the former employees and would “defend itself accordingly,” adding that the firings were unrelated to concerns raised by the employees in 2019.
“As we have said, the claims made about drilling rates are demonstrably false,” Norton said. “The speed the employees claimed was impossible, was not only possible, but we achieved that speed three years ahead of the plan they questioned. It turns out, the employees were not qualified enough to offer an opinion, let alone [make] a credible complaint.”