'France Telecom and its former CEO stood trial on Monday accused of creating a a system of workplace harassment in a brutal bid to downsize, which prosecutors say triggered a wave of 35 suicides in less than two years.
In the first such case of its case for a company this big, France Telecom, since renamed Orange, its ex-boss Didier Lombard, and six former colleagues face charges of “moral harassment” for enforcing a “corporate policy aimed at destabilising their employees and agents by creating a stressful professional climate”.
France Telecom was privatised in 2004, a move which led to major restructuring and job losses. Unions say management came up with this "system" to accelerate change at the company as it faced increasingly open competition since the state removed its controlling stake.
Two years later, with the telecoms market in full upheaval and France’s state sector workers virtually unsackable, Mr Lombard unveiled a management plan that made no bones about wanting to strong-arm 22,000 employees to leave within three years. Managers should do everything possible to push them to do so "through the window or the door", he told them.
The aim, said prosecutors, was to demoralise staff in any way they saw fit in order to get them to throw in the towel. This could be sending them to far-flung places away from their families, obliging a mother to travel two hours to work each day, or "forgetting" staff during an office move leaving them in the former premises for weeks without an office, desk or chair and far from ex-colleagues.
In their indictment, investigating magistrates said employees faced “multiple and disorderly organisational changes, repeated calls to to leave, forced mobility, an excess or absence of work, the attribution of demeaning missions, non-existent or insufficient training and…isolation”.
The strategy worked but unions and management now concur that in the space of a year from 2008-9, some 35 employees had taken their own life in the process.
One stabbed himself during a meeting, another left a suicide note saying he couldn't take the strain of "management through terror”. Two months later, a 32-year-old woman killed herself in her Paris office as horrified colleagues looked on. Thousands more left the company appalled at their treatment.
When asked to explain the rash of suicides, Mr Lombard prompted widespread outrage by dismissing them as a “fad”. He later apologised for “the enormous gaffe” and stepped down in 2010.'
Read more: France Telecom and its former CEO stand trial for company-wide 'harassment' after wave of 35 suicides
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