By Jack Kelly
35 employees of the French telecommunications company Orange—previously known as France Télécom—died by suicide. Ten years later, three top corporate executives were convicted of “collective moral harassment” and “institutional harassment” for creating a toxic work environment which led to the suicides.
Orange is a large dominant global company with 266 million customers, roughly 150 thousand employees and a top-ten mobile network operator. The company, once run by the government, was privatized. This transaction incurred significant costs. The now private company could no longer rely on the largess of the government. To cut costs executives hatched a plan to get rid of about 22,000 workers as part of an overall restructuring.
In France, employees have much more power and a say in the workings of corporations compared to the United States. It is hard, if not impossible, to fire workers as they have strong contractual agreements with the company protecting their jobs. It’s standard operating procedure for workers at French companies to have an unlimited permanent work contract—contrat à durée indéterminée.
While corporations based in the U.S. can downsize people in cost-cutting measures, it is not easily accomplished in France. The executives couldn’t simply layoff their employees. Instead, the CEO and top executives hatched a scheme to create an “atmosphere of fear” to make the lives of their workers miserable and intolerable.
They engaged in a pattern of behavior that caused “severe anxiety” among the staff with the desired goal of having them quit on their own volition. Management pushed people into inappropriate roles, made them move long distances for work and generally tried to make their lives as unpleasant as possible.
Since the majority of French workers are not as mobile as in the U.S. and other countries, they are not accustomed to jumping from one job to another. They are used to staying with one company for their entire careers. The rigidity of the French corporations makes it difficult for experienced workers to procure new jobs.
Rather than leaving their jobs, a frighteningly large number of workers killed themselves in dreadful ways. It was reported that employees hung, set fire and threw themselves out of windows and under trains. A 51-year-old worker from Marseilles, France killed himself, leaving a letter accusing his bosses of “management by terror”.
Last Friday, a criminal court proceeding in Paris found three senior executive guilty and responsible for creating an atmosphere of fear. According to their ruling, “the means chosen to reach 22,000 departures were illegitimate.” The court said that the executives perpetrated “a conscious scheme to worsen the work conditions of the employees in order to speed up departures,” and their policies ultimately “created a climate of anxiety” that led to the suicides.”
Former CEO Didier Lombard, was accused of masterminding the devious plot to jettison workers “either through the window or through the door.” He was sentenced to four months in jail along with a $16,000 fine. Two other top executives including Orange’s then-director of human resources received jail time and fines. Orange was fined around $83,000.
The trial shows that managers waging a campaign of harassment against employees could establish a precedent in France and other countries. It may serve as a strong warning to corporate executives and management that their actions have severe consequences. Pushing employees too hard may result in serious consequences for both the workers and the purveyors of the punishing behaviors.