The France Télécom trial which concluded on Friday 20th December 2019, resulting in jail sentences for three former bosses, constitutes a landmark criminal case with repercussions far beyond France itself. This is the first time that the bosses of a listed company have been held criminally responsible for driving their employees to suicide. Bosses have been charged, not with targeting individual employees but with implementing management strategies across the whole company based on ‘harcèlement moral’ or psychological bullying. In an earlier case, Dentsu, a leading advertising agency in Japan was charged in 2007 with the suicide of one of its employees, but no individuals were charged and it was the company itself which was held responsible as a corporate entity.
At France Télécom, the former chief executive Didier Lombard, his former deputy Louis-Pierre Wenes and the human resources director Olivier Barberot were each given a one-year sentence, with eight months suspended, and fined 15,000 euros. Meanwhile, the company, which rebranded as Orange in 2013, was handed a maximum fine of 75,000 euros (£64,000).
This story begins in 1997, when the former state-owned company privatised and its chief executive (Michel Bon) engaged in a frenzied series of mergers and acquisitions which led the company into massive debt. By the time he stepped down in 2002, the company’s share price had fallen by 70% while its debts ballooned to 60 billion euros. France Télécom now had the dubious honour of being the most indebted company in the world, and Moody’s downgraded its shares to the status of junk bonds. This meant that the company henceforth had one overarching policy: to reduce its debts and recoup profits through a massive staff-cutting strategy.
The Next strategy put in place by Bon’s successor, Didier Lombard, set as its objective to shed 22,000 jobs in the space of three years and to place a further 10,000 employees into redeployment. However, the company was faced with a serious obstacle: the majority of employees held protected status as public service employees and couldn’t be legally fired (the company could only make an employee redundant after offering them three alternative jobs). Lacking the formal legal means to initiate redundancies, management instead put in place strategies based on psychological bullying designed to pressurise employees to leave the company of their own accord. Some employees were placed under such psychological pressure that they chose to take their own lives. There were 35 employee suicides at the company in 2008 and 2009.
The France Télécom verdict is a moment of justice for families many of whom have been involved in protracted litigation with the company for over a decade. The verdict was possible because in France, suicide is legally recognised as a potential ‘work-related accident’ and a 2002 law on ‘moral harassment’ prevents employers from bullying or intimidating their employees. In the UK, by contrast, there is no still no legal recognition of work-related suicide and suicides, even those that occur in the workplace, are always treated as a voluntary and subjective act. Suicide is explicitly excluded from the list of workplace accidents that must be reported to the Health and Safety Executive for further investigation. This exemption potentially exposes UK workers to risks to their health and safety that could be rectified by improved regulatory procedures.
By Sarah Waters