In 2008, a dozen women employed by Sterling Jewellers sued the company. They’re alleging sexual discrimination at the highest levels.
The matter, once argued in contractually mandated private arbitration proceedings, has now evolved into a class-action lawsuit, with the trial beginning in October 2017.*
Sterling is a division of Signet Jewellers, which owns Zales, Kay Jewellers, and Jared’s Galleria. Class members can include women who were sales associates, department managers, assistant managers, or store managers at a Sterling retail store in the 13 years since October 16, 2003. It’s a potential class of about 44,000, filings related to the case show; already, more than 10,000 have joined.
That’s not all. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission separately filed a gender-discrimination suit against Sterling a few months after the initial complaint. An aspect of that case — whether the EEOC conducted enough of an investigation before suing — has made its way to the US Supreme Court.
In its annual report, the company can’t say how much it will have to pay if it loses, but it has told shareholders that if it loses, it will be “required to pay substantial damages.”
It’s another headache for Signet, which over the past year has fought off accusations of diamond switching and deceptive sales practices. The company’s share price has fallen by half in less than a year.
In a statement to Business Insider, the company said that it has created opportunities for “many thousands of women” and that it “stands by its core values of fairness, opportunity, integrity, and respect.”
“We have taken the allegations of pay and promotions discrimination raised in this case seriously and investigated them thoroughly; they are not substantiated by the facts and do not reflect the culture of our company,” a representative wrote in an email. “We will continue to defend the company against these unjustified legal claims, which misrepresent our deep commitment to, and history of, equal opportunity.”
The plaintiffs claim they were paid and promoted less than their male colleagues. They also accuse executives of regarding “women at Sterling as little more than sexual opportunities to exploit,” according to redacted arbitration documents.
The claim, however, does not include sexual harassment.
Here’s a bit from the claimants’ motion for a class action:
“As the substantial record plainly reveals, this evidence of conduct demeaning toward women originates with the CEO, DVPs, and VPROs and is perpetuated by similar conduct exhibited by DMs throughout the company. …
“The conduct has occurred in settings that are public and private, ranging from banter in hallways and elevators to interactions within Sterling stores and at the mandatory annual meeting of all company managers held in Orlando, Florida.
“This behaviour includes frequent references to women in sexual and vulgar ways; groping and grabbing women; soliciting sexual relations with women, sometimes as a quid pro quo for employment benefits; creating an environment at often mandatory company events in which women are expected to undress publicly, accede to sexual overtures and refrain from complaining about the abusive treatment to which they have been subjected. It has even included sexual assault and rape.”
Arbitration documents describe a situation in which women in various states of undress entertained members of senior management poolside at a company meeting. They say they were subject to comments about their clothes and bodies. In one specific case, a woman who complained says she was told she was “rehashing old news” and ignored.
In response, the company has argued that the claimants have not sufficiently proved they worked in a hostile environment, filings show.
This is contrary to what James Outtz found. He was the president of Outtz and Associates, a consulting firm brought on to do a report on Sterling’s culture ahead of the arbitration proceedings.
Outtz wrote that sexual advancements created a “climate and culture at Sterling in which female employees and their work are devalued when compared to male employees.”
In a response sent to Business Insider after the publication of this story, the company said Outtz testimony was rejected by the arbitrator and that the harassment allegations were only included to “paint a negative and false picture of the company.”
It also said:
“The fact is, many of the allegations were brought to Sterling’s attention for the first time during the current litigation, and some appear to date back more than 25 years. The company has processes in place for receiving and investigating such allegations, and we wish that anyone who had a workplace concern back then had used those processes, so that we could have investigated their concerns and responded appropriately.”
Some allegations have been investigated and addressed, the company said, while others related to consensual relationships among people who never raised concerns with the company.
In arbitration documents, one claimant said she was fired in 2006 after refusing to dance with a manager during a 2005 managers’ meeting.
When she wanted to discuss the incident, as well as her termination, she said the manager had words for her (from the motion for class action):
“He said: ‘[Y]ou will not win a sexual harassment or wrongful termination case against Sterling.’
“He said, ‘Sterling is highly protected […] we have our own resolution program, which means you cannot hire an attorney.’
“He continued to tell her: ‘You’re not going to win.'”
That remains to be seen. But 10 years later, she’s about to have her day in court.
*A previous version of the story stated that the trial will begin in October 2016. It will begin in 2017.