France Telecom boss faces inquiry into workplace bullying

The former chief executive of France Telecom has been placed under formal judicial investigation over workplace bullying after a spate of suicides at the phone company and its subsidiary Orange, in what could become a landmark criminal trial.

Didier Lombard stepped down as head of the company in 2010 amid criticism of his handling of the suicide crisis – about 35 staff killed themselves in 2008 and 2009.

Unions had blamed a culture of bullying that permeated the company and made a mockery of the slogan: "The future is bright, the future is Orange."

Harrowing details emerged of the mental anguish of staff who killed themselves, including one who set himself alight in front of his office in western France.

Some workers left notes blaming unbearable work pressure, bullying and "management by terror" while scores of other staff, from senior technicians to staff who worked processing bills, were saved as they attempted to kill themselves. One worker was found unconscious after taking an overdose at her desk.

Unions complained of a culture of fear and depression, where managers did not take staff mental health seriously. Some union officials said the company had intentionally created a stressful work environment to push employees into quitting in order to reduce its labour force and thereby cut costs.

Suicide crisis
During the crisis over the number of staff deaths, Lombard caused outrage by referring to it as a "suicide trend". He is now accused of advocating tough management practices amounting to psychological harassment.

The legal case is a first in France because Lombard is not being singled out for personally targeting individuals but for presiding over a collective managerial bullying approach that spread across the company. It is the first time a French chief executive has been placed under judicial investigation in a workplace bullying case.

Other senior staff is to be interviewed by judges as unions wait to see if the company, a former state-owned monopoly which is now in private hands, will be held responsible for the workers' deaths.

"I forcefully reject the idea that [restructuring] plans vital to the survival of the company might have been the cause of human tragedies," Lombard has written in Le Monde newspaper, saying he was innocent.

Lombard's lawyer said: "Mr Lombard is being accused of harassment against people that he never met. That is a stunning accusation."

In February 2010, government labour inspectors said a restructuring plan that sought to reduce the company's headcount by 22 000 and put 10 000 other workers in new positions had a "pathological effect" on staff morale.

Ground-breaking case
One worker in Troyes was so desperate over the pressure of forced moves that he stabbed himself in the stomach during a meeting. Others killed themselves at their workplace, some in the middle of the working day.

One 51-year-old who had a senior job working on Orange's networks wrote before his death that the "only reason" he killed himself was work: "I have become a wreck," he wrote.

Call centre workers said they had to ask permission to go to the toilet and file a written explanation for going one minute over a lunch break. Senior staff described being subjected to bullying and being repeatedly forced to move job.

The long-running judicial investigation is being followed closely in France, where unions are particularly sensitive to workplace suicides after patterns of staff taking their own lives at car makers Renault and Peugeot and the electricity company EDF in recent years.

Two other former senior executives at France Telecom have been summoned by investigating magistrates. – © Guardian News and Media 2012

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