The managerial turmoil at France Telecome over a spate of work-related suicides is likely to become a case study in failed change management, firstly, and public relations, secondly.
A report in The Guardian on 6 October 2009, points to a (French) video of the company’s chairman and CEO, Didier Lombard, speaking to Telecome’s managers in January 2009. The paper reports that Lombard says
“those who think they can just stick to their routine and not worry about a thing are sorely mistaken”.
The article goes on to say
“He went on to suggest that staff outside Paris spent their time at the beach, fishing for mussels, adding those days were “over”.”
The last quote sounds like a joke between colleagues but as suicides had already occurred at the time of this speech, it was in poor taste even then.
For those outside of France, Lombard was set on the path of making the company relevant to contemporary ICT needs. A short article from 2005 says
“France Telecom Chief Executive Didier Lombard is merging telephone, Internet and mobile offerings under the Orange brand as part of a three-year program called NExT, an acronym for New Experience in Telecom services.”
There are similarities with a range of telecommunications companies that needed to change – British Telecom, New Zealand Telecom and Telstra to name a few. Telstra’s management change earlier this century with Sol Trujillo and Phil Burgess caused considerable shareholder and political turmoil with their change strategies.
Organisational change from administrative agencies to commercial entities can be a life challenge but it can be done with time and careful planning. The suicides at France Telecome seem to be an extreme example of how this process can be mishandled. However, just as with cancer clusters, the actual cause is often difficult to identify and sometimes can remain a mystery or coincidence. The circumstances at France Telecome need to be carefully studied from when the change management process began, well before the first suicide.
At the moment we are in the period of shock and panic responses by the company. Every suicide heightens this panic. Hopefully the measures being put in place now by the company will achieve a more considered, and long-lasting, corporate result.