Company and ex-boss face investigation after wave of suicides

An inquiry into a wave of suicides has led to France Télécom and three of its former executives being investigated for psychological harassment. More than 30 employees of the telecommunications giant took their own lives in 2008 and 2009, a period which coincided with major restructuring that involved tens of thousands of job losses. It is the first time that a collective managerial policy, rather than one individual manager, has been the subject of this sort of inquiry in France.

Background

Didier Lombard, who was Chief Executive Officer of France Télécom for five years between 2005 and 2010, resigned from the company’s operational management in March 2010. His position had become untenable after the suicides of as many as 35 employees between January 2008 and the end of 2009. The group had been engaged in restructuring operations and had cut 22,000 jobs between 2006 and 2008, while transferring 10,000 employees to other positions (FR0911029I).

The public had already become very sensitive to the issue of workers committing suicide – a phenomenon that had affected a number of companies since 2006 (FR0711039I). The French people were outraged when Didier Lombard was quoted as saying that there was ‘a fashion for suicides’.

Legal proceedings begin

On 6 July 2012, the Paris local lower court (tribunal de grande instance) placed France Télécom as a legal entity under investigation for ‘psychological harassment’ and ‘hindering the operation of the works council and the committee on health, safety and working conditions’. The group, which has 171,000 employees worldwide, 105,000 of them in France, was placed under legal supervision with a surety of €150,000.

On 5 July, the day before the hearing, Didier Lombard, the group’s CEO from 2005 to 2010, was placed under investigation with his bail set at €100,000. The group’s former General Director Louis-Pierre Wenes and its former Director of Human Resources Olivier Barberot were also placed under investigation and under legal supervision, and were each granted bail of €75,000.

Company denies deliberately causing suffering

In a press release on 6 July, the company denied having deliberately caused suffering at work in order to create conditions in which people were likely to leave. Even so, the company, part of the Orange group, acknowledged that its ‘actions may have produced a bad impression, which led to collective problems’. The group added:

It is quite possible that, among employees (who may also have been vulnerable or suffered from difficulties of their own), these problems may have contributed to suffering at work.

Although there had been suggestions that this situation was specific to France Télécom, the company’s insisted in the press release that:

it is an acknowledged societal feature and that many work organisations (including public services), confronted with similar issues of environmental change, have similar problems, some of which [have resulted] in the most dramatic consequences.

On 4 July, in an article (in French) published in the daily newspaper Le Monde, Mr Lombard had denied there was any link between the suicides and the reorganisation implemented as part of the company’s NEXT strategic restructuring plan. The plan, announced in July 2005, was intended to reduce the group’s debts and get it ready to become a major player in the global internet market.

He told Le Monde:

At no time were any plans directed against employees by France Télécom. Although I’m aware that the restructuring plan experienced by the company may have caused concern, I strongly dispute any claim that these plans – which were essential to the company’s survival – could have been the cause of the human tragedies mentioned in support of the complaints.

Report questions management methods

In 2009, in reaction to the France Télécom reorganisation, two unions within the group set up an Observatory on stress and forced mobility to monitor the restructuring process and the actions of the company’s directorate, and their impact on France Télécom employees. The Observatory was a joint project between the Independent Union – Solidarity, Unity, Democracy (SUD) and the French Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff – General Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff (CFE-CGC).

On 14 December 2009, SUD filed a complaint before the Paris local lower court which led to a judicial inquiry in April 2010. The other trade unions within the group then also filed civil claims in support of the initiative.

As part of this inquiry, the judges drew on a report by the Labour Inspectorate (in French, 7.26Mb PDF) sent to them in February 2010, which questioned the company’s personnel management and listed the reasons that had led to the suicides of 14 employees. This report highlighted the fact that the group’s management had been warned of the potential problems by health and safety committees, occupational physicians and the unions. The report said the company ‘was alerted by many stakeholders over the period 2006 to 2009 about the serious risks to mental health posed by the permanent restructuring policy being implemented’.

The Labour Inspectorate believes that ‘the employer used personnel management methods that had the effect of making employees psychologically vulnerable, and affected both their physical and their mental health’. The report criticised the methods used by managers in charge of applying the human resources part of the NEXT strategic programme, saying those methods were characterised by ‘their brutality and the pressure exerted on workers’.

Reaction from social partners

Although the employers’ organisations did not want to comment on the investigations, trade unions were pleased court proceedings were going ahead.

In an official statement (in French, 260Kb PDF), SUD – which had instigated the court proceedings along with CFE-CGE/Unsa – demanded that the definition of the grounds of the complaint be reclassified as ‘endangering the lives of others’ which appeared in the original action.

CFE-CGC/Unsa, in its official statement (in French, 414Kb PDF), criticised the attitude of the former CEO who, it said, had ‘got himself tangled up in a denial’ and had tarnished the image of the company.

Commentary

For the first time, a collective managerial policy is being considered as being the origin of psychological harassment, in criminal terms, rather than a managerial practice linked to one individual. However, in criminal proceedings intent has to be proven, so it will have to be shown that executives were aware of and tolerated a system of management that might have led employees to commit suicide. This is the finding made by the Labour Inspectorate, but it still has to be proven in court.

The case is also symptomatic of organisations that are determined to reduce their workforce while being unwilling to engage in forced dismissals (and indeed, are not able to do so, as in the case of France Télécom, where some employees have the status of civil servants and are therefore protected from any form of enforced redundancy). This is a contradiction, and one which other European operators such as British Telecom have not had to handle by engaging in mass redundancies. It may explain the recourse to a system of management that is restrictive in terms of mobility and not concerned about depression among members of staff.

Since the change of management following Didier Lombard’s departure, the climate within the company appears to have improved. A survey carried out among 4,000 of its employees by study experts Institut CSA in June 2012 shows 87% think their quality of life at work is the same or better than in other companies. The percentage of employees who think that it is worse is only a quarter of what it was when the first survey was carried out in October 2010, falling from 16% to 4%.

Frédéric Turlan, IRShare

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