About a decade after a wave of employee suicides put French telecommunications provider France Telecom, now known as Orange, in a harsh spotlight, its former chief executive, six other executives and the company will face trial, charged with engaging in or assisting with psychological harassment amid a massive restructuring plan between 2008 and 2010, according to Reuters.
It is reported to be the first time a company of its size in France will face a criminal judgment for a bullying law known as “moral harassment” in the country, which is said to have one of the world's stronger legal policies against workplace bullying.
The order comes two years after prosecutors in Paris recommended the case go to trial, and nearly a decade after the company faced a spate of what was reported to be more than than 30 employee suicides, many of which were blamed on workplace stress. The French newspaper Le Monde said an investigation conducted by judges in 2010 looked at cases involving 39 employees: 19 who committed suicide, 12 who attempted to do so and eight others who “suffered a depression episode or work stoppage.” Other reports have put the number of staff members who killed themselves at 35 between 2008 and 2009.
At the time, the company had about 100,000 employees in France, and reports said the figures were not out of line compared with the overall suicide rate per 100,000 people in the country.
Still, the case is a reminder of how different the legal circumstances for such cases are in France than in the United States.
“We don't have an analogue in our country for something like this,” said Debra Katz, a Washington lawyer who often represents plaintiffs in discrimination cases.
“There are potential civil claims that could be brought for intentional infliction of emotional distress,” she said, but added that in the United States, “those types of claims require extreme behavior — not the kind of common indignities and bullying behaviors that take place in many workplaces.”
Philippe Thomas, a partner with the global law firm Dechert who wrote a blog post in 2016 comparing workplace bullying laws in different countries, said what sets French law apart from countries such as the United States is that “bullying in France doesn't need to be linked to discrimination — that's a big, big difference.”
He said the case is the first “moral harassment” case against a work organization to go before a criminal court in France, although civil cases have been bought in the past. (He noted that Dechert represents Orange, but in other unrelated matters.)
France Telecom, a former state-owned company, was partly privatized in 1997. As it worked to compete with other private companies, it embarked on a huge restructuring plan between 2006 and 2008 that aimed to cut head count by 22,000 workers while shifting 10,000 people into new jobs. Union critics said that it created a constant feeling of upheaval and uncertainty and that employees were given meaningless jobs. A 2010 report by labor inspectors said managers used “pathogenic” methods such as forcing people to take new jobs or giving unattainable performance objectives, according to Reuters.
Former chief executive Didier Lombard resigned in 2010 following criticism for management's handling of the crisis. He was reported to have told senior managers in 2007 that he would “get [employees] out one way or another, through the window or through the door.”
The suicides grabbed headlines not only because of their number and because many reported to be related to workplace stress, but because of their nature: According to media reports, one man jumped off a highway bridge in the French Alps leaving a note blaming the environment at work; a woman threw herself from a sixth-floor window after learning she would get a new boss; a man stabbed himself in the stomach during a meeting (he lived).
A spokeswoman for Orange confirmed that judges had moved the investigation to trial and said in an emailed statement that “as it has always said, Orange disputes these accusations and will explain its position at the public hearing that will be scheduled in the coming months. In the meantime, it is important to not pre-judge persons concerned and to ensure strict respect for the presumption of innocence. Orange is a company that is focused on its future development and independent surveys have shown that its employees are proud to work there.”
An email to Jean Veil, a lawyer for Lombard, was not immediately returned; Reuters reported that Veil called the move “absurd.” Lombard has strongly denied that the actions taken by the company caused the suicides and said in a translation of a 2012 editorial that “at no time” were the restructuring plans aimed at employees, but “were meant to save the company and its jobs, and to open up new ways for its employees in the new digital world.”
Sebastien Crozier, who heads CFE-CGC, a trade union that represents workers at Orange (it filed a civil claim and began tracking suicides by employees in 2007), said in a translated statement on its website that the union “welcomes this decision” and that “it is now up to the courts to decide on their criminal responsibility.”