- Legislation called “Ending Forced Arbitration for Sexual Harassment Act” was introduced in the House on Wednesday with bipartisan support.
- It stops employers from forcing employees to sign away their right to sue for sexual harassment.
- One company embodies everything this legislation is meant to stop – Signet Jewelers. It owns Zales, Jared’s Galleria and Kay Jewelers. There’s a massive sexual harassment related class-action case against the company – but plaintiffs who had agreed to arbitration had to fight tooth and nail to get it.
A bipartisan group of members of Congress has introduced a bill that, if passed, will change the way companies across the country deal with sexual harassment in the workplace.
It’s called the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Act and it does exactly what it says. At some companies, when you’re hired, you have to sign away your right to sue the company in the event of sexual harassment or sex based discrimination. Instead, negotiations go to a private, internal arbitration. The company wins, and the employee is left carrying all the shame and the secrets. Most of the time they can’t even tell their coworkers about it – that is to say, they can’t warn their co-workers about it.
One company that all Americans know well has used forced arbitration clauses with outrageous effect: Signet Jewelers.
Signet owns the stores that sell most Americans their engagement rings – Zales, Kay, Jared the Galleria of Jewelry etc. It has a kiosk in every mall and a commercial for every holiday. And it now has hundreds of former female employees willing to tell stories of systematic sexual abuse at the company in the court of law. Specifically, the case is focused on Sterling Jewelers’ pay and promotions practices.
It wasn’t easy. After filing a lawsuit in 2008, they had to fight for years to jump over the hurdle of a forced arbitration clause to get to class action suit, and with stories like these, they shouldn’t have had to.
Here are a few tidbits from both their motion for a class action:
As the substantial record plainly reveals, this evidence of conduct demeaning toward women originates with the CEO, DVPs, and VPROs and is perpetuated by similar conduct exhibited by DMs throughout the company…
This behavior includes frequent references to women in sexual and vulgar ways; groping and grabbing women; soliciting sexual relations with women, sometimes as a quid pro quo for employment benefits; creating an environment at often mandatory company events in which women are expected to undress publicly, accede to sexual overtures and refrain from complaining about the abusive treatment to which they have been subjected. It has even included sexual assault and rape.
- CNBC screengrab
Former CEO Mark Light is among those accused of sexual harassment and giving out promotions based on sexual favors. When we asked the company about this last year, it sent this statement:
The fact is, many of the allegations were brought to Sterling’s attention for the first time during the current litigation, and some appear to date back more than 25 years. The company has processes in place for receiving and investigating such allegations, and we wish that anyone who had a workplace concern back then had used those processes so that we could have investigated their concerns and responded appropriately.”
Light did not, however, respond months later to the Washington Post’s questions about it in February when the newspaper reported that more than 250 women had made declarations against the company. Light retired in July, citing health reasons, and was replaced by Virginia Drosos.
Up until this moment – and for decades thanks to forced arbitration – he and others like him have been protected from the shame of these claims.
“You go to arbitration, and it’s a black hole of nothing,” one of the women, a former Kay employee named Heather Ballou, told the Washington Post this week.
Signet didn’t immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment on this story. The company did however tell the Post that it was “reviewing the legislation and therefore cannot comment further on any specifics. Signet is committed to maintaining a safe and inclusive workplace, and we remain confident that the systems and practices in place for filing grievances are fully compliant with legal requirements.”
‘Stop it now’
In her speech introducing the legislation, Congresswoman Cheri Bustos (D-IL) called out Signet by name. She said she was inspired to write the legislation when she read the Washington Post’s coverage of the Signet case.
It was, she said, “a rigged system that allowed those in senior leadership to prey on women in the workforce.”
At her side stood Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), Congresswoman Elise Stefanik (R-NY), Congressman Walter Jones (R-NC) and Gretchen Carlson – the woman whose lawsuit against Fox News brought down one of the most powerful men in media.
“To those CEOs and the managers who think their workplace should be run like an episode of Mad Men we have one message for you. Stop it, stop it now,” said Bustos.
Forced arbitration – secret meetings and silencing agreements – work in the same way that Harvey Weinstein used non-disclosure agreements. They “protect the predator,” said Gillibrand.
So it will be fascinating to see this legislation cross President Trump’s desk. This will be a law from his own life. The Trump Organization has always been known for forcing employees to sign away their right to speak about what working there, from those working in the corporate office to those working on the golf course.
And of course Trump himself has always been known for demeaning women; for speaking to and about them in a disgusting manner; for intruding on them when they’re undressed, for an egregious sense of entitlement to their bodies; for shaming their looks without any sense of irony or self awareness; in short, for objectifying them.
“Because it is faster, more cost effective and tends to level the playing field, it is commonplace for large companies like The Trump Organization to use arbitration as the preferred method for resolving disputes,” the company told CBS News earlier this year, when asked to explain its policy.
At Wednesday’s press conference Graham said that he would like to see the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable come out for this legislation, and ended his speech with a warning to business leaders across the country.
“You’re going to lose if you fight this.”