As allegations fly, it's a time for courage.
“Is this true?”
“Is this real?”
Those were two actual and different responses I received after sharing the Washington Post article published on Monday evening about a private class-action arbitration case involving Sterling Jewelers and the roughly 250 former employees – male and female – who have alleged that female employees at the company throughout the late 1990s and 2000s were, according to the article, “routinely groped, demeaned, and urged to sexually cater to their bosses to stay employed.”
Is this true? Is this real? Well, what we know right now is that yes, it is true that there is a legal battle going on involving Sterling Jewelers – the multibillion-dollar subsidiary of UK-based Signet Jewelers that is the parent company of well-known U.S. jewelry chain stores Kay Jewelers and Jared the Galleria of Jewelry – and a fair number of members of its former staff. What we also know to be true and real is that this is not a new story, nor is it a new case, having been originally arbitrated in 2008 when over a dozen female employees accused the company of widespread gender discrimination. And sadly, what we also know to be true and to be very, very real is that whether or not Sterling is guilty of these allegations of discrimination and sexual harassment, and whether they win or lose this legal battle, these issues still exist in our corner of the luxury world, and we have to start speaking openly about them if we want to see fewer stories like these in the future.
Back in November I wrote a blog post titled, “What It’s Sometimes Like to be a Woman in the Jewelry Industry: One Person’s Story,” wherein I shared with my readers a fraction of what I had been subject to over my two-plus decades in the jewelry industry and four-plus decades as a female. And while the comments section of the post was filled with a handful of women and men sharing both their personal stories of harassment and their disgust at what they had just read, it was the private messages, emails and texts I received that opened my eyes to just how hidden, undermentioned and swept under the rug these situations are.
Twenty-nine. I had gotten 29 additional messages privately from women – some of whom I knew, some of whom I didn’t – sharing their harassment and discrimination experiences with me, asking that I not share theirs publicly, and letting me know that they were grateful that I had the courage to talk about mine. Twenty. Nine. Think about that for a moment; think about how many women you know in your life. Do you know at least 29? Think about how many of those women you hold dearly.
Maybe 16 of those who messaged me privately were someone’s mother. Maybe a dozen were someone’s sister. Ten of them may have been someone’s wife when their harassment experience occurred. All of them were certainly someone’s daughter when it did. And yet even after writing that post and after seeing how many times the piece had been shared across all social media channels from LinkedIn to Facebook, I found myself – just in these last handful of weeks – being subjected to inappropriate behavior yet again, this time by someone working for a designer I had been visiting while at a trade show.
Let me be quite clear here: Not every accuser is truthful. I want to go ahead and make that statement now before anyone else does because the reality is there are two sides to every tale. A male member of the industry replied to the Washington Post article shared on my page with a story of his own stating that he was a manager with Sterling for years and that he had been accused of sexual harassment by an employee even though he claims he had not partaken in any such behavior. So yes, these stories can go both ways, which is even more of a reason we need to talk openly about them, because let’s face it, we’re not discussing this unless one of these situations involves a major chain company and/or makes national news, and even then, we talk about it for a little while until some other topic comes along that we find ourselves appalled by for a hot minute. As an industry, we’re great at adding our impassioned opinions in the “here and now” in 140 characters or less, but how good are we at making 29 women feel comfortable enough to share their experiences in a public forum rather than via a private social media app? How good are we at believing over 250 women and men who claim in their sworn statements that they were witness to or were victims of sexual harassment at a single company? Not good at all. Quite frankly we stink, and we stink badly.
“It was like nobody knew right from wrong, and there was nobody trying to show anybody right from wrong.”
“If you were even remotely attractive or outgoing, which most salespeople are, you were meat, being shopped.”
These are the statements in the Washington Post article that are sticking with me most. They came from a former manager at Sterling named Ellen Contaldi, who had worked for the company for 14 years and had been witness to some of the injustices that she claims happened during company meetings and events, which were often held at hotels or resorts.
Right and wrong. Such a simple concept. Such an easy thing to teach, to learn, and to accomplish. And yet every day in our industry we struggle with it.
So, I’d like to help. For those of you who still have issues figuring out what’s right and what’s wrong as it pertains to sexual harassment, allow me to use an example of my own – one from just a couple of weeks ago – so that you’ll hopefully understand a little more clearly: When a female writer you’ve never met before walks into your booth to interview you or to give your brand some exposure and she asks you politely if you could remove a necklace from a prop so that she can get a better picture of it, but she does so by using the words, “Can you take it off for me?”, the right way to respond is to say, “Yes, I would be happy to.” And the wrong way to respond would be to look her body up and down and say creepily, “I was about to say the same thing to you.”
Talk about this. Talk about it here. Talk about it now. And talk about it until things start to change. We have to have courage. We have to have empathy. We have to be better.
Yes, this is true.
Yes, this is real.
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