France Telecome’s CSR report is telling but sets high expectations

In 2009, France Telecom’s management practices came to global attention as a result of a spate of over 20 suicides that were identified as work-related.  On 6 June 2011, France Telecom released its Corporate Responsibility Report that covers the period of the management turmoil touched upon in earlier SafetyAtWorkBlog articles.

The document is an impressive document that sets an enormously high benchmark on a range of corporate and personnel issues but one will find no mention of suicides.  The best indication that this was a company in crisis is the level of inquiries, reviews, audits and workplace safety control measures that have been implemented over the last two years.  It is also important to remember that the control measures are designed to bring about a cultural and organisational change to this corporation and that this will take a considerable time.  The struggle can be best, and most tragically, illustrated by the April 2011 self-immolation of a France Telecom employee in the company carpark in Merignac.

By acknowledging that this report has come from a company in crisis it is possible to identify some useful OHS, human resource and organisational cultural initiatives that may be applied in other large corporations around the world.

France-Telecom has developed a “Social Contract” whose context is explained in the above report:

“This new “Social contract”, fuelled by listening to employees, by agreements and collective reflections undertaken early in 2010, is both the expression of this new social ambition and a response to the human issues that have arisen. as an integral part of the development strategy, it forms a framework for a new relationship between the Group and its employees.”

This context is also an example of how the OHS problems of the company exists as a sub-text to major portions of the report.  The Social Contract involves consultation with employees but with a pledge to listen.  This has become a regular and overt requirement in Australian Occupational Health and Safety legislation and codes since early this century.

The contract is defined in the report as having three main objectives:

  • “to indicate the Group’s determination to keep its commitments by reconciling economic performance, corporate social performance and customer service quality;
  • to define and optimize the operating principles of the company by allowing everyone to take the initiative and assume responsibility;
  • to confer on every employee resources to enable them to know and understand the nature of actions being undertaken, and to provide them with direction.”

It is difficult to see any corporation allowing employees the level of empowerment that these objectives identify without changing its capitalist values.  It is reminiscent of the push for “industrial democracy” that occurred in some countries over a decade ago and that, largely, failed because companies were not prepared to share sufficient power for the concept to work and workers expected more power than the companies were will to share.

The level of revolutionary potential of this contract is acknowledged in the France Telecom report:

“It touches on all areas of the company: the employment policy, work organization, role of managers, quality of life at work, remuneration of employees and the Human Resources function.”

There are many thorns in the feet of capitalism from this contract.

The company aims to support the contract and the related changes through strategies that are familiar, but indicate the complexity of establishing a suitable workplace culture in the 21st Century:

  • “increase external recruitment, with 10,000 recruitments planned in France for permanent contract positions in 2010-2012.
  • assist young people into employment: partnerships with schools…..
  • support every employee in the long term:
    • 250 dedicated people in “Orange futures” areas to advise employees on their career path.
    • Older employees receive specific support: possibility of opting for senior part-time hours, “cap seniors” interviews for over 55s to take a bearing on their intended career path.
  • enable everyone to develop recognized experience and skills: over three million hours’ training per year…..
  • Foster diversity and particularly gender equality, with an objective of 35% of women in the “leaders” network 2015.”
However all of this is macro-corporate change.  How will the company address the workplace stress issues that have been identified as contributing to suicides?  The pact the company made with unions in 2010 commits the company to:
  • “the undertaking at least every three years by an independent expert of an employee satisfaction survey (see p. 18);
  • the establishment of a National Stress Prevention Committee (CNPS) to include representatives of trade unions and management, and stress prevention advisers;
  • a systematic analysis of the psychosocial risks associating those involved in health in the workplace and Committees for Hygiene, Safety and Working Conditions in organizational change projects;
  • training and action to heighten awareness among all those involved in this field (managers, HR, employee representatives, etc.);
  • the establishment of psychosocial risk prevention commissions in Local Works Committees;
  • the organization of discussion meetings  to encourage collective expression by employees;
  • taking into account demands related to health and safety in the selection and assessment of service providers”
The company is achieving some of these commitments through the development of a “preventer” network on stress management and psychosocial risks.  The report provides few specifics on this network but unless the network is handled carefully there is the potential if for a form of “thought police” or at least a “happiness patrol”.
For those who call for the separation of OHS from industrial relations, it is noteworthy that remuneration is an integral element of France Telecom’s improvement plans:
  • “To be motivated, employees need a system of fair remuneration, and the recognition and valuing of each person’s commitment and collective successes:
    • preferred methods of linking employees with the company’s results (profit-sharing plans, employee share ownership);
    • protection schemes for the future: Group Savings Plan, Collective Pension Savings Plan (PERCO);
    • a motivating increase system: in France, the salary agreement of 26 April 2010 specifically allows for an average increase of 3% with a guaranteed €500 for all.”

The inverse of this is that under-paid workers are miserable.  France Telecome’s suicides could be described as “contemporary sabotage“.  These workers were divorced from the mechanisms of production and had no equivalent to throwing their clogs in the gears* and seem to have identified suicide as their only practical escape.

The significance of France Telecome’s Corporate Responsibility Report will come from the planned management audits and assessments over the next few years.  The high benchmark has been set due to the deaths of workers.  Every worker suicide in the future will be seen as an indication that the organisational cultural changes are not working.  Every change program that does not reach its aims will be measured in the psychological impact on the company’s employees.
And how will negotiations on wages operate with the unions after there has been an acknowledgement that inadequate remuneration levels have contributed to worker suicides?  This is a piece of industrial baggage that union organisers around the world would dread.
France Telecome was a company in a dire mess of occupational psychosocial risks and this report indicates that it is on the path to recovery but it also seems that the path has been littered with unrealistic ambitions.  But what alternative did this company really have?  It needed to reach for the stars because it, and its workers, were in the depths of despair but what will be the response of workers, unions and the community if the company does not reach the heights it has set for itself?

Kevin Jones

* possibly an etymological myth but a great image

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