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Bosses at a French telecom giant could be jailed after 35 employees killed themselves

Kevin Webb , Business Insider US
 Jul 12, 2019, 05:11 PM
3,000 workers in the public service demonstrated i
3,000 workers in the public service demonstrated in Nantes, France, on 9 May 2019. (Photo by Estelle Ruiz/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
  • Former executives for France Télécom, now known as Orange, are on trial on charges of "moral harassment" and have been accused of creating a hostile work environment that led to dozens of suicides.
  • The New York Times reports that at least 35 France Télécom employees died by suicide after the company enacted a plan to eliminate 22,000 jobs in 2007. Even more employees reported suffering from work-related depression.
  • French officials ordered France Télécom to go private in 2003, and the company accrued billions of euros in debt by 2005. The company could be forced to pay civil damages to employees who were affected by the company's stressful work culture.
  • For more stories, go to Business Insider SA.

The former lead executives of France's largest telecommunication company are facing the end of a two-month trial in which they stand accused of creating a hostile work environment thought to have helped drive dozens of employees into deep depression and, in some cases, to take their own lives.

A report from The New York Times says at least 35 employees of France Télécom killed themselves in the period after the company enacted an aggressive plan to eliminate 22,000 jobs in 2007, with many more said to develop depression.

Defendants include France Télécom's former CEO Didier Lombard, former human-resources director Olivier Barberot, and former deputy executive director Louis-Pierre Wenes. Each of the seven defendants is facing a charge of moral harassment. If found guilty, they could face up to a year in prison and a fine of 15,000 euros (R235,000) according to the Associated Press.

The company, which rebranded as Orange in 2013, is also on trial and could be forced to pay civil damages to any workers found to be harmed by the company's practices.

The trial comes more than a decade after the company decided to cut 22,000 workers from its workforce of 130,000. French officials ordered France Télécom to go private in 2003 as the company struggled to keep customers from abandoning landlines for mobile phones. Two years later, the company had taken on more than $50 billion (R696 billion) in debt, forcing executives to find new ways to cut costs.

Prosecutors say the executives intentionally created a toxic work culture by harassing employees, intentionally forcing them into the wrong roles and keeping them serially overworked. On a recording from 2007, Lombard, the former chief executive, said he would reach the company's quota of job cuts "by the window or by the door," The Times reports.

A wave of employee suicides from 2007 to 2010 prompted a complaint from Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques, a French trade union, and an investigation of France Télécom.

The case has highlighted the mounting tension between French workers and executives as the country faces ongoing employment issues. The Times reporter Adam Nossiter shared details from the trial, which began in Paris in May.

Prosecutors offered the personal stories of several employees who died by suicide, reports say.

A 28-year-old employee hanged himself in 2009 after being transferred from field technician work to sales without receiving customer-service training, prosecutors said; the day before he killed himself he worked a 12-hour shift with a single 30-minute break. Another worker set himself on fire in front of a France Télécom office near Bordeaux in 2011 after multiple reassignments, The Times reports.

Based on the Times report, many of France Télécom's employees expected to spend their entire career with the company. At its peak, France Télécom monopolised the country's communication services with support from the government, but the company struggled to adapt as mobile devices took over the market.

The sociologist Noëlle Burgi worked with employees as suicides increased and told The Times that the workers were subjected to "a process of humiliation."

The former France Télécom executives have denied the charges. Lombard said the suicides were not linked to one another and had no relation to the company's job cuts.

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