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One accusation of sexual harassment is bad. Ten thousand? That's an epidemic. But that's how many women, so far, have joined a class action lawsuit against Sterling Jewelers, with allegations of harassment and discrimination stretching back as far as 2003.
And it might even get worse for Sterling. Court documents indicate the potential class for the lawsuit could be as many as 44,000 current and former female employees.
Not a Sterling Reputation
Sterling is a division of Signet Jewelers, which also owns Zales, Kay Jewelers, and Jared's Galleria. And the female plaintiffs in the case allege they were treated more like the merchandise than employees. Business Insider reports that claims made in redacted arbitration documents depict female employees being paid less and promoted less frequently than male counterparts, and were "little more than sexual opportunities to exploit," for Sterling executives.
The allegations were not isolated incidents involving lower-level staff:
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 ...
This behavior 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.
Diamond in the Rough
What began as separate claims confined to private arbitration hearings has become a full-blown class action lawsuit, and even an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit to boot. According to one claimant, her manager told her, "'Sterling is highly protected [...] we have our own resolution program, which means you cannot hire an attorney... You're not going to win." But now that the allegations against Sterling are out in the open, she may have a better chance.
For its part, Sterling told Business Insider it's created opportunities for "many thousands of women" and that it "stands by its core values of fairness, opportunity, integrity, and respect." Those core values will be put to the test when the class action goes to trial in October of next year.