July 6, 2012

Did a whip-cracking telecom CEO cause 35 employees to commit suicide?


Didier Lombard, the former CEO of France Telecom, was charged this week with mental harassment in a complaint filed by a French labor union, which suggests that when Lombard oversaw the communications giant the working environment he nurtured was so stressful and toxic that in a two-year span more than 30 employees committed suicide.

The suicides occurred during 2008 and 2009, in the midst of company-wide restructuring plans, which intensified competition among employees and, allegedly, was the result of unyielding pressure from Lombard. The media reported widely on the suicides, and Lombard resigned shortly thereafter, but his reputation for cruelty was established and he has since become something of a pariah for many of the victims’ families and current and former employees of the company.

Bloomberg reports:

France Telecom suspended its restructuring plans in 2009 and Lombard stepped down as CEO in 2010 after more than 30 people killed themselves as the company struggled to cope with intensifying competition. Most of the workers when Lombard left had protected status that made it difficult to fire them and the company instead gave employees meaningless jobs to force them out, driving some to take their own lives, the unions said.

Most of us can sympathize with, or at least imagine, the unpleasantness that comes from an untenable work environment. Pressure stemming from work is one of the leading causes of stress in Western culture, and is known to contribute to heart problems, various mental illnesses, and other health ailments. In fact, this article in the Daily Mail dubbed work-related stress the “Black Death of the 21st Century.”

Despite the inherent tragedy of this case, one must still wonder how, exactly, prosecutors will unquestionably prove guilty a man who never even met the employees that committed suicide. What’s more, how will the prosecutors prove Lombard’s environment of “mental harassment” was in fact not just a phase of intense competition brought about by financial tension? These complexities and others are reasons many legal experts are suggesting this case has the making of a landmark criminal trial. Not up for question, however, are the troublesome details emerging as the case develops.

From the Guardian:

Harrowing details emerged of the mental anguish of staff who killed themselves, including one who set himself alight in front of his office in western France. Some workers left notes blaming unbearable work pressure, bullying and “management by terror” while scores of other staff, from senior technicians to staff who worked processing bills, were saved as they attempted to kill themselves. One worker was found unconscious after taking an overdose at her desk.

Unions complained of a culture of fear and depression, where managers did not take staff mental health seriously. Some union officials said the company had intentionally created a stressful work environment to push employees into quitting in order to reduce its labour force and thereby cut costs.

While death by suicide of 35 employees is a caustic figure, it is actually below the national average for a company of 165,000 employees, a statistic Lombard’s defense is sure to produce time and again as the trial wears on. Lombard himself recently issued a plaintive article in Le Monde, detailing the circumstances that led up to the crisis.

I realize that upheavals in the company could cause shocks or disturbances. But I strongly doubt that these plans are essential to the survival of the company may have been the cause of human tragedies cited in support of complaints. I deeply regret the death, illness and distress, and I share the grief of bereaved families. No responsible business leader can not accept the plight of its employees.

Some want to influence the adaptation plans of the group responsible for these situations. However, the implementation of these plans was necessary in the context in which France Telecom has evolved since the Internet bubble burst, and I question whether the cause of these tragedies. The company was nearly swept away by an over-indebtedness. The state made ​​its duty by accepting a partial recapitalization but had to put the company afloat, it can generate resources to pay off debts and be competitive. And amid all this success of the constraints imposed by the Commission in Brussels, the French regulations, technological developments that called for a real transformation for ensuring the survival of the company.

France Telecom is a multinational telecommunications corporation and currently employs about 180,000 people and has nearly 200 million customers worldwide. Its primary communications services focus on mobile media and telephone devices and Internet service. If found guilty of harassment, Lombard faces up to one year in prison and a 15,000-euro fine.


Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.