France Telecom, its ex-boss, and six other former executives are set to face trial for their role in creating such a highly pressurised work environment that it pushed a number of vulnerable employees to kill themselves a decade ago.
The company and its former directors, including past-CEO Didier Lombard, have been charged with engaging in or assisting with “psychological” or “moral” harassment amid a massive restructuring plan between 2008 and 2010, according to a statement from the company’s telecommunications workers union, CFE-CGC.
The union, citing an indictment, said the case should reach the courts in the first half of 2019.
All but two of the accused executives are now retired.
Louis-Pierre Wenes, Lombard’s ex-deputy at the French telecoms company at the time of the suicides scandal, is one of six other executives who are due to stand trial. Brigitte Dumont, the company’s current head of corporate and social responsibility, is another.
It is reported to be the first time a company of its size in France will face a criminal judgment under the country’s “moral harassment” bullying law. Orange, which France Telecom changed its name to in 2013 following a merger in 2000, disputes the allegations.
“As it has always said, Orange disputes these accusations and will explain its position at the public hearing that will be scheduled in the coming months. In the meantime, it is important to not pre-judge the persons concerned and to ensure strict respect for the presumption of innocence.”
The order comes two years after prosecutors in Paris recommended the case go to trial and nearly a decade after the company faced a spate of what was reported to be more than 30 employee suicides, many of which were blamed on workplace stress.
France is reputed to have one of the world’s strongest legal policies against workplace bullying. Under French law, employers may be liable for civil damages and can face up to two years’ imprisonment and a fine of €30,000 (U.S. $35,000) if the act of bullying is also found to be a criminal offence. In practice, however, employers are rarely found criminally liable.
France Telecom, a former state-owned company, was partly privatised in 1997 but still employed around 100,000 workers a decade later when the company initiated what unions described as a “brutal” restructuring plan that cut head count by 22,000 workers while shifting 10,000 people into new jobs between 2006 and 2008.
Union critics said the company’s plan to remain competitive created a constant feeling of upheaval and uncertainty, adding that thousands of employees were moved to meaningless, or demeaning, jobs. A 2010 report by labour inspectors said managers used “pathological” methods to reduce headcount.
Making legal history?
The legal case against Orange and the seven executives is a first in France, and the long-running judicial investigation is being followed closely. The case is the first time a French chief executive has been placed under judicial investigation for workplace bullying and is also notable because ex-CEO Didier Lombard is not being singled out for personally targeting individuals, but for presiding over a collective managerial bullying approach that spread across the company.
In the decade since Orange embarked on its major cost-cutting programme, French unions have raised strong concerns over the company’s treatment of its employees (and not just those who carried out or attempted suicide). Call centre workers have said that they had to ask permission to go to the toilet, as well as file a written explanation for going one minute over a lunch break. Even senior staff have said they were subjected to bullying, as well as being repeatedly forced to move jobs.
Orange is not the only French employer to experience workplace suicides due to alleged “management by stress”: carmakers Renault and Peugeot, as well as electricity company EDF, have all seen employees take their own lives as a result of changes in working conditions in recent years.
In fact, 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, and the company’s slogan that “the future is bright” also turned out not to be the case for dozens of workers. One 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.
Several other employees also tried to kill themselves, citing unhappiness with changes at work. One man attempted suicide by stabbing himself in the stomach during a meeting (he lived), while a 53-year-old senior manager attempted an overdose at her desk after learning she was to be posted to another part of the country for the third time in a year.
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.
Orange has said that the rate of suicides is statistically not unusual for a company with such a large workforce. It has also said that most suicides are prompted by personal, not professional, causes.
Lombard has also strongly denied that the actions taken by the company caused the suicides. In a 2012 editorial printed in Le Monde, he said that “at no time” were the restructuring plans aimed at employees. Instead, he said, they “were meant to save the company and its jobs, and to open up new ways for its employees in the new digital world.”
In an e-mailed statement, an Orange spokesperson said: “After 8 years of deliberation, the judges have moved the investigation to trial. As it has always said, Orange disputes these accusations and will explain its position at the public hearing that will be scheduled in the coming months. In the meantime, it is important to not pre-judge the persons concerned and to ensure strict respect for the presumption of innocence.”
It added: “Orange is a company that is focused on its future development and independent surveys have shown that its employees are proud to work there.”