Harassment at French firm ‘led to 35 suicides’

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Harassment at French firm ‘led to 35 suicides’


France Telecom, since renamed Orange, its ex-boss Didier Lombard and six executives face charges of
France Telecom, since renamed Orange, its ex-boss Didier Lombard and six executives face charges of “moral harassment” for enforcing a “corporate policy aimed at destabilising their employees by creating a stressful professional climate” (stock photo)

France Telecom and its former chief executive stood trial yesterday accused of systematic workplace harassment which prosecutors say triggered a wave of 35 suicides in under two years.

France Telecom, since renamed Orange, its ex-boss Didier Lombard and six executives face charges of “moral harassment” for enforcing a “corporate policy aimed at destabilising their employees by creating a stressful professional climate”.

France Telecom was privatised in 2004. Unions say management came up with a “system” to accelerate change as it faced competition after the state removed its controlling stake.

Two years later, with the telecoms market in upheaval and France’s state sector workers virtually unsackable, Mr Lombard unveiled a plan that allegedly made no bones about wanting to strong-arm 22,000 employees to leave within three years. Managers should do everything possible to push them to do so “through the window or the door”, he told them.

The aim, said prosecutors, was to demoralise staff in any way they saw fit to get them to resign. This involved sending them to far-flung places away from their families, obliging a mother to travel two hours to work each day, or “forgetting” staff during an office move, leaving them in empty former premises for weeks. Magistrates said employees faced repeated calls to leave, an excess or sometimes absence of work, demeaning tasks and non-existent training.

The strategy worked, but unions and management now concur that between 2008 and 2009, 35 employees took their own life. One stabbed himself during a meeting, another left a suicide note saying he could not take the strain of “management through terror”.

A 32-year-old woman killed herself in her office as horrified colleagues looked on.

Thousands more left the company, appalled at their treatment.

When asked to explain the rash of suicides, Mr Lombard prompted widespread outrage by dismissing them as a “fad”. He stepped down in 2010.

All executives denied the charges, saying they did all they could to save the company at a difficult time. But after poring over documents and interviewing witnesses, prosecutors said managers had been “trained to demoralise their teams and their bonuses were dependent on this”. The trial is expected to last up to two months.

© Daily Telegraph London

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