The former head of France Telecom – since renamed Orange – and six other directors face trial over a run of suicides at the company allegedly caused by a culture of harassment at the company.
Ex-boss Didier Lombard and senior colleagues led the telecoms business through a tough restructuring that aimed to cut 22,000 jobs, move 10,000 staff into other roles and recruit 6,000 new employees.
The plan, which began in 2006, aimed to force through the cuts within three years following the company’s privatisation.
Mr Lombard is accused of telling managers to do everything possible to push staff to leave “through the window or door”, with the aim of demoralising them so they quit.
Measures to achieve this included transferring workers to distant roles away from their families, giving them demeaning roles, “forgetting” staff during office moves, or leaving them in vacated offices without desks or chairs, according to reports.
The atmosphere took a heavy toll on staff with workplace stress blamed on a spate of suicides starting in 2008 that cost more than 30 lives.
These included one man who stabbed himself in the stomach during a staff meeting, another who set fire to himself in a work car park, and a woman who threw herself out of a window. During one 10-day period in 2010, five employees committed suicide.
A 2010 labour report called management’s methods “pathogenic”.
In the process of a seven-year inquiry by Paris’s public prosecutor into the deaths, it emerged one staff member left a suicide note saying they could not take the strain of “management through terror”.
Under questioning, executives said there were no concrete targets for staff cuts, only “guidelines”. However, the prosecutor said managers had been “trained to demoralise their teams and their bonuses were dependent on this”.
Mr Lombard himself caused outrage when asked to explain the suicides, describing them as a “fashion”.
The former chief executive, who denied any wrongdoing during an investigation of the suicides, stepped down as chief executive of Orange in early 2010 amid criticism of his handling of the crisis.
Mr Lombard and his former colleagues – all of but two of whom are now retired – are accused of “moral harassment”. Under the charge, they are alleged to have taken part, or assisted, in psychological harassment, a crime which carries a maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to €30,000 if found guilty.
In a statement, Orange said “As we have always said, Orange rejects the accusations and will make its case during the public hearing which will be scheduled in the coming months.”
Mr Lombard’s lawyer called the charge “absurd”.
The CFE-CGC union which represents staff at Orange said the case – which is not expected to start until late 2019 – must “serve as an example so that management never again uses social violence to get people to leave.
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