The New York Times Magazine has published a lengthy expose into the corporate culture of Sterling Jewelers Inc, a corporation which dominates the mall jewelry business with brands like Jared and Kay. It is not pretty.
The Washington Post initially broke the story of employees’ widespread harassment allegations back in 2017, and there is a large class-action lawsuit over the company’s pay practices currently winding its way through the courts. Now Taffy Brodesser-Akner has a new feature for the New York Times Magazine detailing the company’s apparently rotten culture over the decades, alleging gender discrimination in wages and sexual harassment and providing a thorough accounting of how a toxic workplace is created and maintained. She writes about the mountain of sworn statements collected for the lawsuit, which after years is still stalled in litigation:
The sworn statements, when read from beginning to end, are shocking, first for the consistency of horrors across cities and regions. Then for the egregiousness and audacity of the abuse they detail. But as you make your way through the declarations — to that of a woman in Missouri who, upon finding her store manager with his penis exposed, was asked if she wanted to join in, or another woman, whose manager felt her up while her boyfriend, also a Sterling employee, was facing another direction — they become shocking simply for their volume. When you finally get to the end — Tammy Zenner, who was called Texas Tammy by her colleagues because of the size of her breasts and who complained to her store manager that an executive visiting the store had rubbed himself against her from behind but was told when she complained that she should be flattered — another wave of shock hits you. Hot-tub orgies? At the company that has so profoundly contributed to our notions of gauzy romance and surprise Valentine’s gifts and new and abundant ways to show a woman how she is treasured?
Brodesser-Akner spoke to dozens of current and former employees, many of whom told her they had loved the job, but often at the cost of living with awful conditions:
What emerged was not just a list of individual horrors and degradations but an accounting of the systems put in place that allowed the abuse to proliferate and kept it from ever becoming known either to the other women at the company or to the public. What emerged was a portrait of a company that the women said felt all-powerful and was often vindictive to them; a company the women were afraid to run afoul of; a company that was, at various times, described to me as “the Wolf of Wall Street,” but for mall jewelry, and “the Gestapo meets Studio 54.”
Sterling’s stock has dropped significantly since the initial revelations by the Washington Post, but as Brodesser-Akner points out, that’s probably due to mall retail flatlining, rather than the chickens coming home to roost. The company of course pushed back on her reporting:
The company maintains that it is innocent, that the suit is in arbitration and that it is private. Its spokesman asked that I be clear with readers that these charges are old — that they believe this story “casts our company in an unfair and erroneous light based on unsubstantiated allegations, most of which are decades old” and have not yet been tested in litigation. They reminded me over and over that the case was not a sexual-harassment case and that there were no claims of sexual impropriety that had made it into the case (although, again, litigation has not begun).
The piece lays everything out in a way that heightens the contradiction at the heart of the story—the notion that a company built on women’s fantasies of being loved and valued would systematically degrade and exploit the women who work there. Or maybe it’s not a contradiction at all.
Read the full piece here.
Update: A spokesperson for the company has sent us the following statement:
We’re disappointed that The New York Times decided to publish an article primarily based on decades-old allegations, and we believe casts our company unfairly. Signet is a recognized leader among companies for gender diversity, with women making up 74% of store management positions and full gender parity in both the C-Suite and Board of Directors. Under the leadership of our CEO Gina Drosos, we are undeterred in our ongoing mission to champion diversity and inclusion as a strategic priority and in our multi-year business transformation plan.