Lessons for everyone in the legal action against France Telecom executives over suicides

In 2009-10, SafetyAtWorkBlog followed the unfolding and tragic story of the spate of suicides at France Telecome that were directly related to the change of work practices and organisational policies instigated after privatisation.  SafetyAtWorkBlog stated that the suicides could be considered to be a case study of poor personnel management and, in more recent parlance, a failure of safety leadership.  This month French authorities have begun investigating France Telecom executives.

According to an AFP report in early July 2012:

“Louis-Pierre Wenes was placed under investigation on Thursday, a day after former France Telecom chief Didier Lombard, for workplace harassment, his lawyer Frederique Beaulieu said.”

At the time of the suicides Wenes was Deputy CEO and Lombard was CEO.

Interestingly and curiously, workplace bullying is not a term used in the France Telecome situation, although it may have met the criteria that Australia applies.

According to International Business Times, Lombard wrote the following in a Le Monde article on 4 July 2012:

“The [restructuring] plans put in place by France Telecom were never intended to hurt the employees,…

“On the contrary, the plans were destined to save the company and its workforce. I am conscious of the fact that the company’s upheaval may have caused problems [for some employees]. [But] I categorically reject the idea that [restructuring] plans vital to the survival of the company might have been the cause of human tragedies.”

These comments indicate that any prosecution of France Telecom executives will be contested strongly and, probably, on the basis of unintended consequences of organisational restructure.  It is likely that the executives will accept criticism of a poorly administered restructuring but will argue, as has been restated before, that the rate of suicides is equal to, or below, the suicide rate in the rest of France.

It is useful to analyse a Meet The Boss video interview with Louis-Pierre Wenes from around 18 months ago in which he discusses possible factors that lead to worker suicides and how it feels to be a scapegoat.

What M Wenes misses is that people commit suicide every day for a range of reasons but at France Telecome workers were leaving suicide notes that specified work pressures as THE reason for taking their own lives.  He states in the interview that the suicides was not an issue specific to France Telecom, but the suicide notes prove otherwise, in some cases. As with other psychosocial hazards, there are times when mental health issues are part of a worker’s life and then there are times when work activity generates psychosocial problems.  France Telecom undoubtedly generated mental health problems in some of its workers and seems to have failed to appropriately manage the cause of those problems, even though workplace support mechanisms were available.

M. Wenes does not see the distinction between suicide and workplace suicide but it is an essential distinction when considering a prosecution under workplace health and safety laws and in trying to identify control and preventative measures.

This long process of accountability will provide lessons in executive accountability and workplace mental health around the world but little comfort to the families of France Telecom’s suicide victims.

Kevin Jones

1 thought on “Lessons for everyone in the legal action against France Telecom executives over suicides”

  1. So how far have we come since Ruth Barton of RMIT released details of a survey of call centre work of more than 1500 customer services officers that more than a third are always or often stressed at work ,causing high staff turnovers and absenteeism ,this was in the AGE in 2009 ,or gogle the TARP 1997 benchmark report , and read Niels Kjellerup,s various reports on this industry internationally Australia rated the worst

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