The ex-chief executive of France Telecom and two other former executives have been jailed for pursuing a cost-cutting policy that was so severe it led to a spate of employee suicides.
Didier Lombard, his former deputy Louis-Pierre Wenes, and Olivier Barberot, the ex-head of human resources at France Telecom (which changed its name to Orange in 2013), were found guilty of “institutional harassment” for presiding over a restructuring program that allegedly prompted 35 employees to take their lives in 2008 and 2009 (and dozens more to attempt to do so).
They were each given a one-year sentence (with eight months suspended) and a €15,000 (U.S. $17,000) fine.
Four other executives, including Brigitte Dumont, the company’s current head of corporate and social responsibility, were found guilty of complicity and given four-month suspended sentences and €5,000 (U.S. $6,000) fines.
The company was also fined €75,000 (U.S. $83,000), and the sanctions—used for the first time—are the maximum available.
While all seven executives—as well as Orange itself—had denied the charges, the court examined 39 cases of employees and, of that number, 19 had taken their own lives; an additional 12 made attempts. The eight others had lived with depression or had been otherwise unable to work.
Orange said in a statement it would not appeal the decision. Lombard’s lawyer, Jean Veil, however, said his client would do so.
It is the first time a French court has recognized “institutional harassment,” and the trial has been seen in France as a landmark case for relationships between workers and management. The case was notable because Lombard was not being singled out for personally targeting individuals but for presiding over a collective managerial bullying approach that spread across the company.
France Telecom, a former state-owned company, was partly privatized in 1997 but still employed around 100,000 workers a decade later when it initiated what unions described as a “brutal” restructuring plan that cut head count by 22,000 workers while shifting another 10,000 people into new jobs (and new locations) between 2006 and 2008.
A 2010 report by labor inspectors said managers used “pathological” methods to reduce employee numbers. Lombard was reported to have told senior managers in 2007 that he would “get [employees] out one way or another, through the window or through the door.”
Lombard’s turn of phrase proved unfortunate. In July 2008, a 53-year-old technician named Jean-Michel Laurent threw himself under a train minutes after talking to a colleague. Another technician named Michel Deparis, who described his workplace as “management by terror,” ended his life in July 2009, leaving a note that attributed his suicide to his “work at France Telecom.”
Another employee jumped off a highway bridge in the French Alps after leaving a note blaming the workplace environment, while one woman threw herself from a sixth-floor window after learning she would get a new boss. Another employee set himself on fire in a work car park.
In one particularly difficult period in 2010, the company experienced five suicides in 10 days. Lombard resigned the same year following criticism for management’s handling of the crisis.
The spate of suicides prompted then-Labour Minister Xavier Darcos to ask the country’s 2,500 biggest firms to negotiate anti-stress strategies with unions.
Ahead of the decision, Orange in July set up a compensation commission to review cases, which led to the company establishing an evaluation and compensation committee in October to arrange financial settlements with beneficiaries of those who died, as well as those whose health suffered as a result of the restructuring program.
The company has also implemented measures aimed at preventing workplace suffering and psychosocial risks and has sought closer engagement with employee representatives and unions to avoid a repeat of its failings to ensure employee wellbeing.