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Women Share Stories About Toxic Work Environment Within Sterling Jewelers

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Sterling Jewelers, which owns Kay and Zales and Jared The Galleria Of Jewelry, built its business on the idea that women and romance are precious like the stones that sparkle in their stores.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I was wondering if you were free for the rest of your life.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: At Jared, we only sell one piece of jewelry...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: ...The one she'll wear forever.

CORNISH: But as Taffy Brodesser-Akner reports in this weekend's New York Times Magazine, the culture behind the scenes at Sterling hasn't been anything like the image they sell. Her story starts with Dawn Souto-Coons, who discovered a wage disparity when she was working at Jared. She took it to attorneys, who soon uncovered much, much more - unequal pay across the company, which turned into a class-action lawsuit, yes. But also women from across Sterling stores shared stories that range from harassment to assault. And a warning to our listeners - this segment contains descriptions that some may find disturbing.

TAFFY BRODESSER-AKNER: It could happen as lightly as asking a woman to wear something that's lower cut or brushing behind her. But then it also was about saying to a woman in something Dawn had heard that an assistant manager had wanted to lick a saleswoman from head to toe. It was a regional vice president asking for women to get rounded up to come to his hotel room. I heard horrifying stories about women being trapped in bathrooms in hotel rooms and calling for help.

CORNISH: Was this something the company had been keeping a secret? Or were these women not reporting?

BRODESSER-AKNER: The women who reported were sent into arbitration, into Sterling's very own hospice for its personnel issues, which is called Resolve.

CORNISH: And you're calling it hospice because...

BRODESSER-AKNER: Because they...

CORNISH: ...It is your belief that this is where complaints go to die.

BRODESSER-AKNER: I mean, it's been 14 years since Dawn left her Jared job and walked into a lawyer's office. And arbitration is sold as a fast and efficient way of resolving an issue. This was not that. And the reason that nobody has known about what was happening at the largest jewelry conglomerate in the country is because they had to stay in the confines of an arbitration system that the company controlled.

CORNISH: There's a phrase you heard a lot in your interviews - the good, old boys. Can you tell us what was going on at management level?

BRODESSER-AKNER: There were men and some women who advanced simply because they seemed eager to help the company culture perpetuate. And that was a company culture in which women were paid 40 cents less on the dollar than men - the company told me that was incomplete information, and they would not make it complete for me - and a company culture in which a corporate retreat was held every single year in Florida and was described to me as a total Bacchanalia. There was alcohol everywhere. I heard about a rape that happened there. I heard about a pool orgy that happened there.

CORNISH: Is the issue consensual behavior? Or is the issue where this culture intersected with the ability of women employees to advance?

BRODESSER-AKNER: It's all of it. There was a system in place for women to advance by negotiation. I have a woman in my story who was approached at a manager's meeting by a district manager who knew she wanted to transfer out of her store and said that if she slept with him that night, that he would. And he did.

CORNISH: The company maintains that it's innocent. A spokesman told you that they, quote, "believe the story casts their company in an unfair and erroneous light based on unsubstantiated allegations, most of which are decades old" and, they point out, have not been subject to any kind of litigation or been in court. What's...

BRODESSER-AKNER: Right. But I want to say something - yeah, I want to say something about that. They are only decades old. And they - they were only left unlitigated because of the company's delay tactics in arbitration. In a normal court setting, this would have proceeded.

CORNISH: How are the women involved - the ones you spoke with - living their lives in the meantime?

BRODESSER-AKNER: For the most part, they are not in jewelry anymore. And they are - a lot of them are not in retail anymore. But they all describe to me the way that what happened to them at Sterling continues to play out in their lives. They are worried about being alone with men. They are worried that any kind of friendliness is an invitation for something. They're - they don't understand why these things keep fading away. And they keep fading away because the company fights so hard to still keep this lawsuit a secret.

CORNISH: Taffy Brodesser-Akner of The New York Times Magazine - thank you for sharing your reporting.

BRODESSER-AKNER: Thanks for having me.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We reached out to Signet Jewelers, the parent company of Sterling. They responded saying Brodesser-Akner's reporting represents the company unfairly, and they dispute many of the allegations in the article. They point out that women make up the majority of their store managers and C-suite positions. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.