Unsealed Documents Paint Troubling Portrait of Sterling

Washington–The Washington Post published a report Monday detailing accounts of sexual harassment and objectification of women at Sterling Jewelers Inc., operator of the Kay and Jared chains. 

The article was based on more than 1,000 pages of sworn statements submitted as part of the ongoing class-action arbitration that accuses Sterling of pay and promotion discrimination against women. 

The arbitration itself does not contain any allegations of sexual harassment or impropriety, which David Bouffard, spokesman for Sterling parent company Signet Jewelers Ltd., pointed out were never pursued by the claimants’ attorneys despite “years of litigation, millions of pages of documentation and numerous depositions.”

But the documents reported on by the Post were filed as part of the case and had remained under wraps, until now.

The documents consist of declarations from about 250 women and men and detail reports of mandatory company meetings where women were “aggressively pursued, grabbed and harassed,” the Post story states.

One former Sterling employee said she didn’t like being alone anywhere and dreaded going to these meetings where women “were meat, being shopped.”

One former male employee told the Post that he was troubled by the climate at the retailer, writing in his declaration: “This culture of sexism and womanizing was so prevalent that female management employees were pressured to acquiesce and participate.”

Bouffard said in his statement sent Monday night that these allegations present a “distorted and inaccurate” view of the company.

They involve a very small number of individuals who worked for Sterling during the period covered by the class arbitration (2004 to present) and many of the allegations go back decades, he said.

Bouffard also noted that complaints reported to the company were “thoroughly investigated, and action was taken where appropriate.”

The report is another blow for Signet Jewelers Ltd., which already is grappling with slow sales and fallout from last year’s allegations of stone-swapping at Kay Jewelers stores.

The gender discrimination case against Sterling Jewelers, which accuses the retailer of paying female employees less and passing them over for promotions in favor of men, was first filed by a group of about 12 women in 2008.

Though Signet Jewelers fought against it, arbitrator Kathleen A. Roberts ruled in February 2015 that the women could pursue their claims as a class, though she threw out claims that the alleged discrimination was intentional.

The case now includes 69,000 former and current Sterling employees.

The documents obtained by the Post were employee statements that were submitted as part of the arbitration that had been designated as confidential.

Attorneys for the women fought to make these documents public, eventually reaching an agreement with Sterling’s lawyers that the documents could be released as long as the names of executives and managers accused of harassment or abuse were redacted.

In its story, the Post said it had been asking to review the employee statements submitted as part of arbitration since 2015. More than 1,300 pages of sworn statements from 250 men and women were released Sunday and were the basis for the story that the Post published on Monday.

Bouffard said the sexual harassment allegations “are being publicized by claimants’ counsel to present a distorted, negative view of the company.”

The lead counsel for the women, Joseph M. Sellers of the Washington, D.C. firm of Cohen Milstein, did not respond to request for comment on the story Tuesday.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has a separate lawsuit against Sterling Jewelers alleging the same–pay and promotion discrimination. That lawsuit was filed in federal court in 2008 on behalf of 44,000 women and is ongoing.

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