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