When It Rains, It Pours at Signet

The jeweler’s newest headache is the public airing of sexual harassment complaints

This week, Signet Jewelers, which has absorbed a number of blows in the past six months, was hit by another bombshell: a Washington Post article alleging sexual harassment and gender discrimination at its Sterling division, with excerpts from sworn statements from former employees.

Now, these complaints are not new. Some of these allegations date back decades. They formed the basis for the last group of articles on this issue. What has changed is that the affidavits have now been made public.

Law firm Cohen Milstein, which in 2008 brought a class action arbitration against Sterling for gender discrimination, has posted the 249 employee statements online, with the names of the accused redacted. Reading them certainly indicates that Sterling had a problem.

In response to the Post story, and the many others it spawned, Signet issued a statement:

It’s critical to understand that an arbitration claim was brought against Sterling in 2008 that alleged gender discrimination in pay and promotion. None of the 69,000 class members have brought legal claims in this arbitration for sexual harassment or sexual impropriety. Since its filing, it has never included legal claims of sexual harassment or hostile work environment discrimination.… Despite years of litigation, millions of pages of documentation, and numerous depositions, claimants’ counsel have chosen not to file sexual harassment claims. These allegations publicized by claimants’ counsel and reported in the media create a distorted, negative image of the company.

As I have written before, Signet might want to reconsider the way it responds to these stories. Its statement may be true, but it’s also irrelevant. A group of ex-employees has sworn there was sexual harassment at Sterling. So while the distinction this statement points out may matter from a legal standpoint, to the average reader it means little.

People understand that Sterling has close to 100,000 employees, and some are going to screw up. What they want to know is that Signet has a way to deal with any problems that occur.

Signet’s statement says that “[t]he company takes any concerns seriously and had—and continues to have—multiple processes in place to receive and investigate allegations of misconduct.” This is similar to its statement on stone switching: “Incidents of misconduct, which are exceedingly rare, are dealt with swiftly and appropriately.” The message is: “We can handle this. We have always been able to handle this.” But that is belied by the posted statements; the ex-employees repeatedly claim their concerns were not dealt with adequately.

As it happens, Signet is not the only company accused of sexual harassment in the last month. Two weeks ago, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler wrote a blog post complaining about the company’s culture. The post went viral; at press time, it’s racked up over 10,000 likes. Other pieces followed.

Uber responded quickly, enlisting former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder to conduct an independent review, in conjunction with board member Arianna Huffington, its general counsel, and its new chief human resources officer.

Hiring Holder is a bold, and most likely expensive, step, which sends a strong message: “We take this so seriously we hired a former attorney general to examine it.”

Signet may not have the resources to hire an ex–cabinet member. But it needs to tell the world what its sexual harassment policies are. Have they changed since the events in question? Does the company offer employee training? How many sexual harassment complaints did it receive last year? How were they resolved? Has anyone ever been let go because of them? Is the number of complaints going up or down? Who has been chosen to look into this?

Granted, Signet has a problem that Uber doesn’t: It’s currently in a legal proceeding (though, as Signet keeps reminding us, the sexual harassment charges aren’t at issue). Its statement reads like it was written by an in-house counsel: It admits nothing; it only says what it needs to; it nitpicks the other side. That might work for a legal case, but it falls flat in the court of public opinion. And that is ultimately where Signet’s brands live or die.

I believe that Signet is an ethical company headed by ethical people. (For one, it’s been a leader in responsible sourcing.) But people don’t know that, and certainly no one reading the Washington Post article would get that impression. It needs to show—not just tell—the public that it takes sexual harassment seriously, and that it has compassion for people who have been the victims of it.

The Washington Post article ends with the tale of a former Kay manager’s graphic tale of harassment. “I can’t even go into a Kay anymore,” she told the newspaper. “It just turns my stomach.”

That’s a powerful statement. It speaks to people emotionally.  Signet needs to develop an equally powerful rejoinder, or that woman won’t be the only one avoiding Kay.

JCK News Director