Hundreds of former employees of Sterling Jewelers, the multibillion-dollar conglomerate behind Jared the Galleria of Jewelry and Kay Jewelers, claim that its chief executive and other company leaders presided over a corporate culture that fostered rampant sexual harassment and discrimination, according to arbitration documents obtained by The Washington Post.
Declarations from roughly 250 women and men who worked at Sterling, filed as part of a private class-action arbitration case, allege that female employees at the company throughout the late 1990s and 2000s were routinely groped, demeaned and urged to sexually cater to their bosses to stay employed. Sterling disputes the allegations.
The arbitration was first filed in 2008 by more than a dozen women who accused the company of widespread gender discrimination. The class-action case, still unresolved, now includes 69,000 women who are current and former employees of Sterling, which operates about 1,500 stores across the country.
Most of the sworn statements were written years ago, but the employees’ attorneys were only granted permission to release them publicly Sunday evening. One of the original women who brought the case, those lawyers said, died in 2014 as proceedings crawled on without resolution.
The statements allege that top male managers, some at the company’s headquarters near Akron, Ohio, dispatched scouting parties to stores to find female employees they wanted to sleep with, laughed about women’s bodies in the workplace, and pushed female subordinates into sex by pledging better jobs, higher pay or protection from punishment.
Though women made up a large part of Sterling’s sales force, many said they felt they had little recourse with their mostly male management. Sanya Douglas, a Kay sales associate and manager in New York between 2003 and 2008, said a manager even had a saying for male leaders coaxing women into sexual favors to advance their careers, calling it “going to the big stage.”
“If you didn’t do what he wanted with him,” she said in the 2012 sworn statement, “you wouldn’t get your (preferred) store or raise.”
Sterling spokesman David Bouffard told The Washington Post in a statement Monday that company officials “have thoroughly investigated the allegations and have concluded they are not substantiated by the facts and certainly do not reflect our culture.”
The company “has created strong career opportunities for many thousands of women working at our stores nationwide” and takes allegations of pay and promotion discrimination seriously, with “multiple processes in place to receive and investigate allegations of misconduct,” Bouffard said.
Allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination “involve a very small number of individuals,” he said, adding that their claims were included in arbitration filings by employees’ attorneys “to paint a negative and distorted picture of the company.”
In arbitration, Sterling presented experts it said had reviewed some employee allegations and concluded that the company “devotes adequate resources to manage complaints of unwanted sex-related behavior,” according to a 2015 filing.
Complaints that were reported to the company were thoroughly investigated, Bouffard said, and action was taken where appropriate. He added that the company encourages all employees to report any workplace concerns so officials can investigate and respond appropriately.
Not all of the 69,000 class members are alleging sexual impropriety. Many are accusing Sterling of wage violations, arguing women were systematically paid less than men and passed over for promotions given to less experienced male colleagues.
The former and current employees are seeking punitive damages and years of back pay, though no estimate of the potential damages has been given. A class hearing, during which witnesses will be called to testify before the arbitration judge for the first time, is scheduled for early next year.
Sterling, like other U.S. companies, requires all workers to waive their right to bring any employment-related disputes against their employer in public courts. Instead, complaints must be decided in arbitration — a private, quasi-legal system where cases are guaranteed little transparency.
More than 1,300 pages of sworn statements were released Sunday and feature company-approved redactions that obscure the names of managers and executives accused of harassment or abuse. But a memorandum by the employees’ attorneys supporting their motion for class certification, filed in 2013, revealed that top executives including Mark Light, now chief executive of Sterling’s parent company, Signet Jewelers, were among those accused of having sex with female employees and promoting women based upon how they responded to sexual demands.
Many of the most striking allegations stem from the company’s annual managers meetings, which former employees described as a boozy, no-spouses-allowed “sex-fest” where attendance was mandatory and women were aggressively pursued, grabbed and harassed.
Multiple witnesses told attorneys that they saw Mark Light chief executive of Signet Jewelers, Sterling’s parent company, “being entertained” as he watched and joined nude and partially undressed female employees in a swimming pool, according to the 2013 memorandum.
Routine sexual “preying” at company events “was done out in the open and appeared to be encouraged, or at least condoned, by the company,” Melissa Corey, a manager of Sterling stores in Massachusetts and Florida between 2002 and 2008, said in her declaration.
Ellen Contaldi, a Sterling manager in Massachusetts between 1994 and 2008, said in her declaration that male executives “prowled around the (resort) like dogs that were let out of their cage and there was no one to protect the female managers from them.”
“I didn’t like being alone, anywhere. I used to dread going” to the meetings, Contaldi told The Post in an interview. “If you were even remotely attractive or outgoing, which most salespeople are, you were meat, being shopped.”
“It was like nobody knew right from wrong, and there was nobody trying to show anybody right from wrong,” Contaldi added. “There was no discipline. There was no consequence. You were on your own.”
Former employees who sought help or reported abuse through an internal hotline alleged in their declarations that they were verbally attacked or terminated. Kristin Henry, a five-year Sterling employee who said she was 22 when an older district manager tried to kiss and touch her at a managers event, told The Washington Post she was falsely accused of theft and quickly fired after reporting his advances to superiors at Sterling.
The case could deeply tarnish a business that sells billions of dollars worth of jewelry a year through romance-centered marketing campaigns such as “Every Kiss Begins with Kay.” Signet told shareholders in an annual report last year that it would have to “pay substantial damages” if it lost the case.
Sterling’s mall outlets and storefronts account for a large chunk of America’s jewelry market, as well as more than 18,000 jobs across all 50 states. Its parent company, Signet, which is domiciled in Bermuda but headquartered in Ohio, is the world’s largest retailer of diamond jewelry, selling more than $6 billion of jewelry, watches and services in 2015, company filings show.
Joseph M. Sellers, a partner at the Cohen Milstein law firm and lead counsel for the case, told The Washington Post in an interview that the former employees’ statements provide “breathtaking evidence of ways in which women were mistreated in the workplace.”
“It was terribly demeaning to them as women,” Sellers said, “not just because they themselves were mistreated but because they saw how their co-workers were treated as sexual objects.”