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AP Photo/Michel Euler
Former France Telecom CEO Didier Lombard once implied that the suicides were a fad.
CORPORATE POWER CHECK

Seven French executives have been sentenced to prison over employee suicides

By Lila MacLellan

From our Obsession

Modern Leadership

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In a landmark decision, a court in France has sentenced the former CEO of the French telecom Orange to four months in jail, over corporate downsizing methods used at the company in the 2000s that have been linked to 19 employee suicides and a widespread mental health crisis among workers.

Judge Cecile Louis-Loyant said managers used “forbidden” methods to create “a climate of anxiety,” CBS reports. Six other former executives were sentenced and fined. And Orange itself, known as French Telecom when it was run by Didier Lombard a decade ago, was also issued a fine.

Orange is now the first large company in France to be convicted of  “collective moral harassment,” which is defined in French labor law as “repeated acts having as their object or effect a deterioration of an employee’s working conditions,” in ways that are likely to infringe on a worker’s rights or dignity, alter their physical or mental health, or compromise their promotion. Lombard was sentenced to the maximum allowable jail term, one year, with eight months suspended, CBS reports.

Orange has announced it will not challenge the court’s decision. Lawyers for Lombard and the other executives have said their clients, who deny any wrongdoing, will appeal their sentences.

As Quartz reported when the trial began in June, the fatal incidents examined in the court case occurred around 2008 and 2009, when the multinational was downsizing as part of a major restructuring. Employee rights laws are particularly strong in France, which made it difficult or impossible for the company to simply lay people off.  The charge against Lombard and others was that they instead used “social violence as a method of management,” as an employee union representative argued, according to France24. The court ruled that the executives pursued a policy of destabilization in their push to cut 22,000 jobs from the company’s payroll.

Managers were said to have bullied people by closing sites unexpectedly and forcing people to move or change jobs repeatedly, ramping up workloads to impossible levels, and tracking employees’ movements, including bathroom breaks.

Some of the suicides and suicide attempts in question happened on the company’s premises. Many of the employees involved left notes explaining that the stresses of their jobs pushed them to a breaking point. One woman leapt from an office window, another employee stabbed himself in the stomach during a meeting, says CBS News. The case ended up connecting 19 suicides, 12 suicide attempts, and eight cases of serious depression to harassment by the company; additional incidents covered in the press were not directly attributed to the company’s pressure tactics.

Psychologists have established a connection between extremely toxic social conditions at work and severe depression. Working long hours, having little autonomy, and enduring stress for sustained periods can put people at risk of mood disorders, experts have found. Nevertheless, there are few countries in the world where a lawsuit such as this could find legal grounding.

In this case, the evidence against the company appeared to be damning from the beginning. Lombard, for instance, called it “a blunder” when he said in a 2007 meeting with senior managers: “I’ll get them out one way or another, through the window or through the door,” writes the BBC. Before stepping down, Lombard also had implied that the suicides were a “fashion” or “trend.”

Orange, formerly a state-owned company, was partially privatized starting in the 1990s and the French government remains a sizable shareholder. The firm today employs 148,000 people. In a statement on its website, Orange says it has undertaken “a vast social transformation project” in the wake of these events and “has implemented measures aimed at preventing workplace suffering and psychosocial risks at a level that is unprecedented among large French companies.” In October, it formed a committee to evaluate compensation requirements to those people identified in the lawsuit, or their beneficiaries.

According to the Associated Press, the labor union CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail, or General Confederation of Labor) said the court produced “a verdict for the future.”