On 20 December 2019, the Paris Criminal Court delivered a landmark verdict, finding France Télécom and seven of its former senior managers guilty of “institutional moral harassment” in the health and social welfare crisis that hit the company between 2007 and 2010, during which 35 employees committed suicide. This judgment, following an unusual trial that lasted 46 sessions, was a world first. Here we look back at its key elements.
The word uttered most often during the ten-week trial was "NExT": "New Experience of Telecommunications". In the light of the crisis it caused, the term now sounds like a crass mistake, but in 2005 it was used almost innocently to refer to the three-year plan devised by the new management team at France Télécom (subsequently rebranded Orange). The original plan was a strategic and financial one: a business policy, pure and simple. In 2006, however, company bosses started judging its success by a new metric: the objective of 22 000 staff departures, "through the window or the door", and 10 000 relocations within three years out of a workforce of almost 120 000, most of whom had civil service status. In this market leader in the French telecom sector, where the workers had already experienced repeated rounds of cutbacks, first after privatisation and then the introduction of market competition followed by massive debt, this policy of drastic headcount reduction created a toxic workplace environment.
Management, keen to shed personnel they regarded as surplus to requirements and avoid a costly redundancy scheme (and therefore union consultation), couched its PR message in terms of "organic" and "voluntary" departures and relocations. But this language concealed the brutality with which their "forced-march" policy was introduced. Everyone was obliged to participate, and any methods were permissible. The company encouraged junior management to set aside qualms about the task they were given by training them in highly destabilising tactics – for example, removing chairs from offices, demoting colleagues arbitrarily, and excluding people from team meetings – and by offering them financial incentives. This quickly created the desired climate of uncertainty: working conditions deteriorated, collectives and solidarity were undermined, and the working environment became stressful. Misery spread among the company’s representatives and employees nationwide: stress, arguments, bouts of weeping, burnout, insomnia, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues, and increases in suicides and attempted suicides. Management remained unmoved, despite a growing number of warnings about the intensifying crisis from all those with safeguarding responsibilities; their attention was focused on performance indicators for their NExT scheme.
The “butterfly effect” defence: an exercise in denial
Under media pressure, France Télécom’s top management finally broke its silence in 2009, after the suicide crisis (28 suicides in 20 months) attracted publicity and aroused public feeling. On 15 September 2009, then-CEO Didier Lombard demonstrated his absence of compassion when he remarked, "This suicide trend has to end." The apology that followed resembled that of a technocrat who was unkeen on press conferences apologising for a slip of the tongue. But when he referred to the "Werther effect" (copycat suicides) on the stand last year, it was clear that the denial of responsibility was strategic. Lombard maintained that media attention had caused the suicide crisis and that this attention had "spoiled things" and "deprived colleagues of their success". The plaintiffs were stunned by this, as they were throughout 10 weeks of debates in which denials of responsibility were accompanied by attempts to normalise bullying. As well as the Werther effect, the accused and their counsel put forward a line of defence alleging a "butterfly effect": words were uttered in Paris headquarters and deaths subsequently occurred in the regions, but a butterfly cannot be held responsible for a storm. This line of reasoning enabled the defence to suggest the accused had neither intention nor responsibility, emphasising their physical distance from victims and France Télécom’s structural complexity. The underlying aim was to deflect responsibility onto middle management for misinterpreting instructions from Paris and applying them with a harshness that was middle management’s doing alone. They also claimed the effects of the storm had been exaggerated. The suicide rate at France Télécom was not "abnormal", they suggested, compared to the national average, and suicide attempts were made only by those who were already vulnerable. Denial not only has a tough hide; it also has fangs.
On 20 December 2019, the Paris Criminal Court delivered a judgment that rejected this normalisation of bullying. In a rigorously argued decision running to 345 pages, the judges upheld the unprecedented charge of "institutional moral harassment". This, the presiding judge explained, was the result of a business policy targeting a collective, with the aim or effect of degrading working conditions to an extent that exceeds the normal exercise of management power. The methods representatives and employees in order to force them to leave, were ruled unlawful. In addition, as it had been established that senior management had repeatedly exerted pressure on middle management to effect 22 000 departures by any means, the judges dismissed the "shield" used by the defence. As a result, the company, as a moral person, and the seven managers accused, including Lombard, were found guilty of "institutional moral harassment" and collusion. Aside from the suspended element of the sentences, the court imposed the maximum penalties for crimes of this sort. A legal precedent has been set•.
du Roy I. (2009) Orange stressé: Le management par le stress à France Télécom (Orange stress: Managing through stress at France Télécom), Paris, La Découverte.
Beynel E. (ed.) (2020) La raison des plus forts: Chronique du procès France Télécom (The reason of the strongest: A chronicle of the France Télécom trial), Ivry-sur-Seine, Éditions de l’Atelier.