Phillips 66 Accused of Bias Against Transgender Jobseekers

HOUSTON (CN) – A transgender woman claims in a federal lawsuit that the Phillips 66 Company rescinded a job offer after discovering during a background check that she had undergone gender-reassignment surgery.

Nicole Wittmer sued Phillips 66 for sex discrimination in Houston federal court on Monday, alleging she applied for a job with the energy giant and was rejected due to her gender transition.

Broadly speaking, discrimination is a common problem in the hiring process, Wittmer’s attorney Alfonso Kennard Jr. said in an interview Tuesday.

Kennard said that hiring managers often “hold onto their own animus” when considering candidates for employment.

“It’s not only wrong, it’s illegal,” he said.

Kennard said many job seekers simply move on when discrimination is a factor in their employment rejections.

“95 percent would just walk away,” the attorney added.

Regarding his client Wittmer, Kennard noted that she could face obstacles in future job opportunities due to her decision to file the discrimination complaint, which is a public record.

Despite the uphill battle, Kennard said that “when folks step up, I’m encouraged.”

Wittmer has not secured another job yet, but she is still seeking employment, Kennard said.

Wittmer applied for an engineering position at Phillips 66’s refinery in Borger, Texas, in March 2015, and her interview panel said that “they were lucky to have found someone like her because they needed someone with her skill set,” according to the lawsuit.

Phillips 66 then offered Wittmer the position of reliability engineer in August 2015, she says.

But Wittmer claims she encountered problems with her background check through nonparty HireRight when the company tried to verify her records, and she gave HireRight tax forms to verify her previous employment.

During the background check, HireRight discovered that Wittmer “had transitioned from male to female by identifying her previous male name,” the complaint states.

HireRight concluded that Wittmer met the company’s standards and sent the results to Phillips 66.

Once HireRight verified Wittmer’s supplementary documents, it cleared her for employment with Phillips 66, Kennard said.

“She had the job,” her attorney said.

Despite HireRight’s conclusion, Phillips 66’s human resources manager, nonparty Ellen Fulton, called Wittmer in September 2015 and claimed that she “had lied during her interview regarding her dates of employment” at her last position, according to the complaint.

Wittmer says she explained that the discrepancy was a clerical error, and the hiring process continued as normal when the company nurse medically approved her for employment.

According to the lawsuit, Wittmer realized that Fulton knew of her gender transition and suspected that it was the crux of Fulton’s assertion that Wittmer had lied, so she emailed Fulton about it.

“I became aware that you all found out that I am a transsexual woman,” Wittmer said in the email transcribed in the complaint. “No one ever comes out and says that is why they do not want you. But to make up a false reason is not Christian.”

Wittmer also said in the email that federal laws and Phillips 66’s diversity policy would not allow the company to revoke her employment offer based on her gender identity.

Nonetheless, Fulton allegedly sent Wittmer a letter a few days later stating that employment discrepancies required her to rescind the job offer.

Kennard said companies frequently ignore or contradict their internal discrimination policies during the hiring process.

“They don’t have to care,” he added.

Wittmer sued Phillips 66 for sex discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Her attorney, Kennard, is with Kennard Richard PC in Houston.

Phillips 66 spokesman Dennis Nuss said in a statement Tuesday that the company does not base employment decisions on “race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age, disability, pregnancy, veteran status, genetic information, citizen status or any other legally protected status.”

“We treat all individuals fairly throughout all phases of the recruiting process,” he said. “Any decisions on recruitment and selection are based solely on objective and job-related criteria in line with business needs and Phillips 66 policies.”

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