Important lessons from France Telecom suicide investigations

On 9 April 2010, according to media reports, an investigating magistrate was appointed to investigate the more than 30 suicides that have occurred in the France Telecom (FT) workforce.

This follows the November 2009 court finding that management policy could generate harassment.

An inspectors report in February 2010 identified that “pathogenic” management methods were applied to achieve a job reduction target of  22,000 between 2006 and 2008.

Significantly one media report says that suicides are continuing in the workforce with ten occurring since the start of 2010.

An Associated Press report on 12 April 2010 quotes a union lawyer:

“At one time, there was an intention to create a sense of frustration so employees would leave. The problem was that it worked too well…”

The company lawyer, Claudia Chemarin, said

“One cannot talk about a policy of moral harassment, each suicide must be put in its context…”

Isn’t the context that all the suicides occurred to France Telecom employees during a period of savage staff reductions?

The interim report into the suicides that was presented to FT and unions in March 2010 is reported to have said:

“The result is a list of 107 recommendations that include a move away from what has been called “the testosterone-fuelled confrontational management style apparently adopted by FT’s senior management after seeing the movie ‘Wall Street’ too many times”.  It also recommends that FT’s bloated human resources department be slimmed down and made more transparent, accountable and accessible.  Furthermore, the report says FT must impose a moratorium on any further reorganisation exercises, must provide a system to monitor “psychological risk factors” and must deploy a team of “mediators” to work with staff who have been discommoded by the telco’s change management programmes.”

The recently appointed CEO, Stephane Richard, undertook a listening tour of the company and was interviewed (in French) by Christine Kerdellant of L’Express.  According to SafetyAtWorkBlog’s school boy French (and several online translators), Richard found that the organisation was too centralised and that line managers did not feel that they had the authority to solve problems at their level.

Part of the cultural change required by the company will be the recruitment of younger managers and the establishment of a mentoring program so that the corporate experience of long-serving employees is not lost.

Richard acknowledges that the reality of the suicides and the media’s attention to the issue has tarnished the company’s reputation, in some ways, unfairly as it dismisses some of the positive achievements of the company.

CEO Stephane Richard seems to be on the right track for organisational and cultural change and he has the luxury of a major corporation that is in good financial shape.

There are several examples of companies that have been identified or assessed as “employers of choice” or who have a strong safety culture but many of these are small in comparison to France Telecom, have established the appropriate culture from the outset and not had to face its workers taking the extreme and desperate action of suicide.  France Telecom has the potential to rewrite some of the tenets of corporate human relations, at least in the European context.

No matter how Stephane Richard presents the efforts or the legacy of the previous France Telecom executives, the suicides began on their watch and they allowed, some would say encouraged, management practices that stressed the workforce to such an extent that around 45 have committed suicide.  That will forever be the legacy that people around the world will remember.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

5 thoughts on “Important lessons from France Telecom suicide investigations”

  1. If the end paragraph is to be believed -as I believe it should be-\”No matter how Stephane Richard presents the efforts or the legacy of the previous France Telecom executives, the suicides began on their watch and they allowed, some would say encouraged, management practices that stressed the workforce to such an extent that around 45 have committed suicide\” then there can be no more denial of any of the workplace and \’workCover suicides as to where the fault and the blame truly is.

    There is no harder funeral to stand and speak at than the funeral of a suicide victim, a life that was once filled with laughter and hope totally destroyed and gone.

    There are no words to ease the pain and the anguish of all who are left behind only a small ease of understanding that the invisible burden that was being carried has been removed and the loved one is beyond the reach of the tormentors.

    Sadly there will be many more who will be forced into the corner of suicide, and sadly there will be more funerals to attend and to speak at, sadly there will be more tears and more asked and unasked questions of why.

    And sadly whilst we focus on the suicide rather that the cause or the reason nothing will change.
    Suicide is a taboo topic not to be discussed in polite company, certainly not to be discussed in the media in fear of copy-cat suicides and not to be discussed at the weekend BBQ.

    So where do we discuss suicide? Where is it that we who can see what is going wrong, where can we heard heard and where can we reach out to the very broken hearted people who believe that there is no one who cares enough to listen and to hear and to help.

    Until we remove the taboo label and have the media talk about suicides and the reasons behind each suicide, then I suggest quite bluntly the best thing to do is buy shares in a funeral company who specializes in funerals with dignity for those who take their own lives.

  2. I think Don Chipp, bless his dearly departed socks said it all when he quoted those famous or infamous words depending on where you were sitting at the time \”We are here to keep the bastards honest\” and I believe that is exactly what we need to do.

    Behavior such as that depicted in the French Telecom experience is illegal at every level in this country and if keeping the bastards honest means absolute affirmative action by the authorities being proactive in applying the law, to the letter, with maximum penalties being applied, then so be it. The message is obviously not getting through in this country, maybe there is too much conflicting clutter which allows those responsible to hide and avoid responsibility.

    The answers are not that difficult. The will to apply seems to be the issue.

  3. Just as the conditions for suicide can be created by artificially creating stressful conditions in a bid to get people to leave the organisation, surely the reverse can happen – by creating the conditions which enable people:

    So what are those conditions?
    I would Guess:
    – a culture of civility (seems like an antique concept in these days)
    – respect and aknowledgement of individual differences (valuing everybody)
    – fairness in allocating workloads
    – fairness in rewards (both monetary and intrinsic)
    – non discriminatory practices
    – flexibility and multitasking
    – advancement on merit
    – social interaction and cohesion.

    These are some of the things we were taught about at times of change in commonwealth employment 1980\’s. Along with those brilliant new policies about EEO, OHS, \”Merit protection\” etc that we had to rote learn. They had the desired effect, to varying degrees depending on the attitude of managers and key personnel in agencies. It wan\’t a bad place to be and the future looked bright. But, as you do, I went off to pursue other career interests.

    I later (1990\’s) viewed the complete breakdown of these principles in an agency I worked for, with a rogue element in management and governance. We had bullying, we had sadness, we had stress leave, we had suicides. We had the highest incidence of stress claims in the comonwealth service by a long shot. Some people spent their time at work quietly weeping at their desks, or locked in the loos if they were attempting to be stoic. Some minor managers had a lunchtime sex club involving junior admin female staff. Fights broke out between friends. The rumour mill went wild. Trust was destroyed. No-one dared to confront the bullies who had the reins of power. Two serial bullies and their minions ruled like tinpot despots. Sounds like fiction, doesn\’t it? All true!

    I left to pursue interests in OHS!!!!

    So now I\’m suggesting the recycling of some old tired ideas?? Not exactly – the first flush of success was fragile as it turned out. Nice principles, but how do you get them to stick?

    I\’m investigating and researching everything I can find on the planet (only a slight exaggeration) to find the key to this problem of changing workplace cultures. Nothing, no model, no theory, no intervention program has me convinced of it\’s accuracy or efficacy.

    Where to from here?

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