Shares of the parent company of Sterling Jewelers, which owns Jared the Galleria of Jewelry and Kay Jewelers, plunged nearly 13 percent Tuesday and briefly halted trading, after The Washington Post reported that hundreds of former workers had made claims of widespread sexual harassment and discrimination at the company.
About 250 former employees allege in sworn statements that women were routinely groped, demeaned and urged to sexually cater to their bosses to remain employed. A separate memorandum, made public in 2013, specifically names the chief executive as a participant in the sexual impropriety.
The statements are part of a private class-action arbitration case that now involves 69,000 current and former employees. Attorneys for the former employees were granted permission this week to release those declarations publicly.
Sterling, which is owned by Signet Jewelers, disputed the allegations, saying that “they are not substantiated by the facts and certainly do not reflect our culture.” The American retailing giant, known for advertising slogans such as “Every kiss begins with Kay,” has about 1,500 stores nationwide.
Signet’s stock fell more than 8 percent Tuesday before the company halted trading and issued a statement. After trading was resumed, the stock continued its decline, hitting a four-year low.
In the statement, Signet said none of the 69,000 members of the case have brought legal claims forward of sexual harassment or impropriety. The arbitration case solely focuses on whether those women have suffered discrimination in pay and promotions, it said.
“These allegations publicized by claimants’ counsel and reported in the media create a distorted, negative image of the company,” Signet said.
The company added that the allegations “involve a very small number of individuals” and that “many allegations go back decades.”
“The company takes any concerns seriously and had — and continues to have — multiple processes in place to receive and investigate allegations of misconduct. We continue to encourage all employees to use these processes to raise any workplace concerns so we can investigate and take appropriate action,” Signet said in the statement.
But the attorneys for the employees said the sworn statements describing rampant sexual harassment are critical to the case because they describe a corporate culture in which women were undervalued or demeaned.
“The evidence shows widespread mistreatment of women, and the evidence remains unrebutted that women were treated this way. This is the environment that the pay and promotion decisions were made,” said Joseph M. Sellers, a partner at the Cohen Milstein law firm and lead counsel for the case.
“Whether or not it legally qualifies as a claim for class-wide sexual harassment is irrelevant,” Sellers added. “We’re saying there’s evidence of women in the workplace, for a decade and across the country, being treated in very harassing and demeaning ways that reflects something about the environment in which decisions about how they work were being made.”
Names of managers and executives were redacted by Signet in the sworn statements that were made public this week. Most of those declarations were written years ago, and the employees’ attorneys were only granted permission to release them Sunday evening.
The class-action case was first filed in 2008 and remains unresolved. One of the original women who brought the case died in 2014, attorneys for the employees said.
A memorandum, which was made public in 2013, summarizes statements from witnesses who accused Signet’s chief executive, Mark Light, of having sex with female employees and promoting women based upon how they responded to sexual demands.
Light did not respond to requests for comment. The company did not make him available for interviews. Signet has declined to address questions about specific allegations made by former employees against Light and other managers.
The case, Jock et al. v. Sterling Jewelers, was filed before the American Arbitration Association, one of the nation’s largest arbitration organizations, and is being heard by Kathleen A. Roberts, a retired federal magistrate.
In a 2015 decision to grant class-action status to the women, Roberts wrote that the testimony includes references to “soliciting sexual relations with women (sometimes as a quid pro quo for employment benefits), and 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 treatment to which they have been subjected.”
“For the most part Sterling has not sought to refute this evidence,” Roberts wrote. Instead, she added, “Sterling argues that it is inadmissible, irrelevant and insufficient to establish a corporate culture that demeans women.”