France telecom: Where suicide was used a ‘management tool’ to reduce the workforce
The guilty verdicts handed down in July 2019 for seven France Telecom executives and France Telecom itself (now Orange) are a landmark in employment legal history. The CEO, Head of Operations and Head of HR were found guilty of psychological harassment, with another four executives guilty of complicity. France Telecom itself was also found guilty of institutionalised psychological harassment.
In 2006 executives decided that 22,000 posts had to go to improve dividends at the recently privatised company. Two-thirds of the 120,000-strong workforce had job-protection status as ex-civil servants. CEO Lombard & Co orchestrated a management training scheme with the aim of making life at France Telecom uncomfortable in the extreme. Local management bonuses were linked to reduction in headcount. Pride in working for France Telecom soon fell from 95% to 39%.
The whole experiment blew up in their faces with a spate of suicides and attempted suicides, often at work and with suicide notes blaming their work and “management through terror”. Warnings from company doctors, health and safety inspectors and trade unions were ignored. At the time CEO Didier Lombard described the suicides as a media-fuelled “fad”.
In the summer of 2009 six further suicides saw trade union rallies outside workplaces with CEO Lombard openly booed and government labour inspectors sent in. In a deal negotiated with the trade unions 500 transfers were frozen, one hundred extra HR staff were taken on to respond, a helpline was set up, communal rest areas were introduced to combat isolation, and staff aged 57 or above could go part-time on almost full-day pay.
Following a seven-year investigation the court case ran from May to July 2019. The public prosecution case focused on 19 suicides, 12 attempted suicides and eight cases of severe depression (2008 to 2011). On the final day of the trial in response to trade union demands Orange announced the creation of a compensation fund for victims’ families in excess of €2 million.
The Public Prosecution has demanded the maximum prison terms of 12 months for Lombard, Wenes and Head of HR Barberot. In the words of the son of one of the victims ‘fear has to switch sides: It’s management who should be afraid to resort to social violence for fear of the consequences’.
On 20 December the former CEO was sentences to four months in jail. Six other former executives were also sentenced and fined. Undoubtedly this verdict will have been welcomed by trade unionists throughout France currently fighting the pro-business Macron government on issues such as pension reform.