On September 23, 2008, the EEOC filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York against Sterling Jewelers Inc., the largest specialty retail jeweler in the United States. The EEOC’s Complaint alleges that Sterling "pays its female retail sales employees less than male employees performing substantially equal work and denies female employees promotional opportunities for which they are qualified." The lawsuit seeks relief on behalf of a class of potentially thousands of current and former female employees of Sterling throughout the U.S. Sterling owns and operates the Kay Jewelers and Jared The Galleria of Jewelry stores and various regional retail jewelry establishments.

In both the Complaint and press release issued by the EEOC on September 24, 2008 to announce the lawsuit, the EEOC claims that Sterling’s system for making promotion and compensation decisions is "excessively subjective" and has resulted in both disparate treatment and disparate impact sex discrimination. The "excessive subjectivity" claim is the primary allegation of unlawful discrimination in the complaint.


The use of subjective criteria in employment decisions often is unavoidable. Simply put, purely objective criteria is not always available or appropriate for hiring, compensation, promotion, and discharge decisions. "Excessive" subjectivity, however, can give rise to allegations of discriminatory treatment and systematic bias. Employers and their counsel often struggle to balance the desire to use all appropriate criteria when making employment decisions, including both objective and subjective criteria, with the knowledge that "excessive subjectivity" in the decision-making can create perceptions of bias and increase the potential for discrimination claims. 


Of course, determining what is "excessive subjectivity," as opposed to typical subjectivity common in many employment decisions, can be difficult. This problem is more significant for larger employers that lack a centralized structure for employment decision-making. An employer with more independent decision-makers has a greater chance for "excessive subjectivity," especially if the employer has not promulgated clear guidelines or requirements for the decision-making process.


The EEOC has made clear that it views "excessive subjectivity" in compensation and promotion systems as a high priority enforcement issue for the agency. The Sterling case, with its nationwide scope and focus on this issue, emphasizes the EEOC’s commitment. Employers and their counsel should be aware of this issue and review their hiring, compensation, and promotion procedures to determine whether changes could produce a better structured, less subjective system.