“What Is the Human Cost of Work?”: Trial of France Télécom, Executives for “Moral Harassment” Begins in Paris

On May 6, an unprecedented criminal trial began in the Paris Criminal Court.  The French telecommunications company France Télécom (now known as Orange), its former Chairman, Didier Lombard, and two other former France Télécom executives are charged with “moral harassment,” a crime under French law that is defined as “frequently repeated acts whose aim or effect is the degradation of working conditions.”  Four other former and current France Télécom executives are charged with “complicity” in the conduct.

This prosecution stems from the 2004 privatization of France Télécom, which had been a state-owned monopoly.  Beginning in 2006, France Télécom executives “carried out a restructuring of the company” in which 22,000 jobs were to be eliminated over a three-year period and 14,000 workers changed jobs – some multiple times.  At the time, however, most employees reportedly “were still considered civil servants and so were protected from layoffs.”

The prosecutors’ theory of the case is that the company and Lombard, who served as Chairman and Chief Executive from 2005 to 2010, “introduced a policy of unsettling employees in order to induce them to quit.”  In particular, as reflected in the investigating magistrates’ summary of charges, executives allegedly “deliberately create[ed] a culture of anxiety among staff and attempting to push some out by isolating, intimidating and demoting them or transferring them away from their families.”  The statement of charges also referred to “multiple haphazard restructures, forcing people to move around geographically and repeatedly pushing incentives for them to resign.”

One widely reported example of senior executives’ attitudes at the time occurred at a 2006 company directors’ meeting.  In that meeting, Lombard himself stated (according to an internal company document from which Le Parisien quoted), “En 2007, les départs, je les ferai d’une façon ou d’une autre, par la porte ou par la fenêtre” (“In 2007, I will do the departures one way or the other – by the door or by the window”).

Subsequently, a tragic spate of employee suicides began at the company.  The reported number of employee suicides in 2008 and 2009 has ranged from 19 to 35.  Lombard responded by referring dismissively to a “suicide fad.”  Although he later acknowledged that he had committed “an enormous gaffe” in making that comment, Lombard stepped down as France Télécom Chairman in 2010.  Shortly thereafter, the Paris prosecutor’s office reportedly began its inquiry into the company’s human resource policies.

The trial – which the Guardian termed “the largest case in which a major company and its former directors have been brought to court to justify their treatment of staff” —  is expected to last at least two months.  If convicted, France Télécom/Orange could receive a €75,000  sanction, and the former executives could receive one year’s imprisonment and a €15,000 fine.

Note: Workplace suicide is a horrendous trend in many industries and countries around the world.  In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has reported that the workplace suicide rate among workers 16 to 64 years old increased 34 percent between 2000 and 2016 (i.e., from 12.9 to 17.3 per 100,000 workers), and indicated that suicide prevention strategies for workers “are needed to help mitigate rising workplace suicide rates.”

In France, Agence France Presse reported that notwithstanding France’s strong labor laws, “depression, long-term illness, professional burnout and even suicide have become increasingly common.”  One French psychologist, Marie Peze, recently asked: “In 2019, with suicides among farmers, police and nurses . . .  what is the human cost of work?”

Although the trial has just begun, it is not too soon for other companies, in France and other countries, to take account of prior reporting about the events at France Télécom and use them to review the soundness of their own employee-assistance and suicide-prevention programs.  A 2018 CDC report, for example, recommends that U.S. employers provide employees with “access to online mental health screenings and web-based tools,” “[h]elp reduce the stigma surrounding seeking assistance for mental illness,” and increase awareness of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.  In addition, at the conclusion of the trial, corporate-compliance teams and academicians should review the trial evidence and prepare case studies, to understand better how a major company could have initiated and implemented a process that apparently led to such tragic results.

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