Is Signet’s Response Enough?

On Tuesday, my colleague posted a piece on the gender-discrimination suit against Signet Jewelers Limited and some of the coverage it’s garnered.

As most of you are aware, The Washington Post reported on Feb. 27 that, according to arbitration documents obtained by the paper, hundreds of former employees of Sterling Jewelers, parent of Jared, the Galleria of Jewelry and Kay Jewelers, claimed “that its chief executive and other company leaders presided over a corporate culture that fostered rampant sexual harassment and discrimination.”

The story said …

“Declarations from roughly 250 women and men who worked at Sterling, filed as part of a private class-action arbitration case, allege that female employees at the company throughout the late 1990s and 2000s were routinely groped, demeaned and urged to sexually cater to their bosses to stay employed. Sterling disputes the allegations.”

Well, yesterday, Signet announced it would be taking additional steps “in the spirit of continuous review and improvement of its policies and practices.”

Signet Chairman Todd Stitzer pointed out in a press release that the retailer “outperforms national averages in the percentage of its store management staff who are female.” But in its quest to be “an employer of choice, we are taking a number of additional steps to ensure our policies and practices are functioning as intended and to identify areas where we can further improve.”

These steps includes the formation of a new board committee focused on “respect in the workforce”—and programs and policies aimed at supporting the advancement and development of the company’s female team members, the release states. The new committee, it states, will appoint an independent consultant to conduct a thorough review that will cover “current and future company policies and practices regarding equal opportunity and workplace expectations, including those covering non-harassment, training and reporting, investigation and non-retaliation.”

The committee will also establish an independent Ombudsperson office to provide confidential advice and assistance to employees who express workplace concerns.

Of course, these steps by the company are all well and good. But are they also simply one more example of a “too little, too late” response. Thomas B. Lewis, an attorney with Stevens & Lee in Princeton, N.J., thinks so.

“The company is talking about its training, its policies, its procedures–and that’s all great. But the real question should be, Did the company take action and enforce its own rules and policies to make sure this behavior is not rampant in the various stores?”

Lewis puts Signet’s problems in two buckets. First, there is the legal aspect, he says. At some point, according to him, that’s going to be resolved. The other—and perhaps bigger issue—is the public-relations problem, he says. Because of all of the negative press, Signet’s sales could take a hit, Lewis says, noting that “you could have a lot of people boycotting the stores and shopping somewhere else because of these allegations.”

In outlining the steps it’s planning to take, he adds, Signet is effectively responding to what the U.S. Equal Employment Opporunity Commission will most likely require them to do.

“It’s a smart thing to do, but they’re really doing it from a public-relations point of view,” he says. “They want to get the message [out] that they’re taking these allegations seriously.”