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Signet Jewelers CEO, at center of gender-discrimination case, retires for ‘health reasons’

Sterling Jewelers, which owns Kay Jewelers and Jared the Galleria of Jewelry, faces a class-action lawsuit alleging sexual discrimination. (Video: Jayne Orenstein/The Washington Post)

Mark Light, the Signet Jewelers chief executive at the center of a sprawling gender-discrimination case, will retire due to “health reasons” and be replaced at the end of this month, the company said Monday.

Light was named CEO in 2014 and worked for 35 years at the retail-jewelry conglomerate, best known for its brands Jared the Galleria of Jewelry and Kay Jewelers. He will be replaced by Virginia “Gina” C. Drosos, who has served on the company’s board since 2012.

Light’s tenure has been marked by an ongoing class-action arbitration case in which 69,000 women who worked for a Signet subsidiary, Sterling Jewelers, alleged that the company discriminated against them in pay and promotion practices.

Hundreds allege sex harassment, discrimination at Kay and Jared jewelry company

Hundreds of women have filed sworn statements in recent years alleging that they also faced sexual harassment or discrimination, and Light and other key executives were accused of promoting women based upon their responses to sexual demands, attorneys for the women said in a 2013 filing.

Former Sterling employees alleged in sworn statements and in interviews with The Washington Post that company leaders had presided over a culture of sexual “preying” on young saleswomen at company events. Multiple witnesses told attorneys that they saw Light watching and joining nude and partially undressed female employees in a swimming pool at one of the company’s annual meetings of managers, according to the 2013 filing.

The company has said the allegations have no merit and a company chairman in March dismissed the accusations in the sworn statements, calling them a “purported parallel universe.” The company has in recent months asked a former federal judge to review company “policies and practices regarding equal opportunity and workplace expectations” and established a special committee focused on “respect in the workplace,” the company said.

Asked if the executive change was related to the class-action case, company spokesman David A. Bouffard said Monday that Light, 55, had decided to retire “due to his need to address his health issues.”

The company canceled an investor meeting in early June due to Light’s health issues, and he has “required multiple hospitalizations and a couple of surgical procedures” for his condition, Bouffard said. The condition is serious but not life-threatening, he added, and “it will require time and attention to ensure complete recovery.” Bouffard did not offer further details about the condition.

The company declined to make Drosos or Light available for comment. Light said in a statement released by the company on Monday that “given the company’s positive direction and my need to address some health issues, the board and I agreed that it is a good time for a transition.”

Sterling discrimination case highlights differences between arbitration, litigation

Drosos formerly served as president and chief executive of Assurex Health, a “personalized medicine company” founded in Ohio in 2006. Drosos said in a statement that she is “committed to successfully executing our strategic priorities.” Bouffard said the board “unanimously supported her selection and has complete confidence in her ability to drive the company forward and deliver value to our stakeholders.”

Light was a veteran of the jewelry giant, and his father, Nathan Light, served as chief executive of Sterling Jewelers for two decades. Mark Light retired as chief executive last Thursday, the same day the board appointed Drosos to the position, company filings show. The move is effective at the end of this month.

Light earned about $7.4 million in salary, stock and bonuses in the most recent fiscal year, up from $2.4 million in 2014. Company filings show that his retirement package will include a full year of salary and a lump sum of his annual bonus, as well as $200,000 in health benefits, $975,000 on the second and third anniversaries of his retirement, $50,000 for retirement-planning services, and $50,000 for “legal fees incurred in connection” with his retirement agreement.

Signet is the world’s largest diamond-jeweler retailer and runs nearly 3,600 Kay, Jared and Zales jewelry stores around the world. But weakening jewelry demand in recent months has led to a decline in revenue.

The $4 billion company’s stock has plunged by more than one-third over the past year, including a steep drop following a Post report in February about the former employees’ sworn statements. The company’s shares slid about 1 percent in trading Monday morning.

Kay and Jared jewelry giant calls sex harassment claims ‘a purported parallel universe’

Light’s retirement announcement follows a number of high-ranking exits this year. In May, a Signet executive vice president, Stuart Lee, and a senior vice president, Clark McEwen, announced their retirements. Last month, Signet’s chief operations officer, Bryan Morgan, resigned due to “violations of company policy unrelated to financial matters,” the company said in Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

The class-action case, first filed in 2008, is ongoing and includes current and former female employees of the company nationwide. Because the case is in private arbitration, most filings have not been publicly released. A trial is scheduled for early next year.

Joseph M. Sellers, a partner at the Cohen Milstein law firm and lead counsel for the case, said on Monday that lawyers continue to hear from women who have complained of mistreatment in the company.

“We look forward to the new CEO making long-needed improvements in the treatment of women in the workplace,” Sellers said.