In 2008 and 2009, dozens of employees of France Telecom took their own lives or attempted suicide amid a massive restructuring at the company. A 52-year-old technician who killed himself in July 2009 described the situation as “management by terror” in his suicide note. Starting this week, six former executives, one current exec, and the company itself—now known as Orange SA (oran)—are in court to face a devastating question: What role did they play in 35 employee suicides?
Ex-CEO Didier Lombard, former deputy CEO Louis-Pierre Wenes, and former HR head Olivier Barberot have been charged with “psychological harassment,” creating a hostile climate in which the deaths took place. Four others, including Brigitte Dumont, now the company’s head of corporate and social responsibility, are charged with aiding and abetting the harassment. The crime of psychological harassment, or moral harassment, is defined in French law as “frequently repeated acts whose aim or effect is the degradation of working conditions.”
The executives and Orange deny the charges. Lombard’s lawyer, Jean Veil, says his client is innocent and could not possibly have known all that was going on in the vast organization. “Mr. Didier Lombard is suspected of harassment of people he never saw,” Veil has said.
The criminal bench trial opened on Monday at the Palais de Justice in Paris, following four years of investigations that accumulated more than a million pages of documents. If found guilty, the executives could face prison time and fines; Orange could also face a monetary penalty. Advocates for the workers, meanwhile, say an outcome against the telecom and its management would make such alleged harassment less likely to ever happen again.
Cutting jobs by alternative means?
A state-owned company until 1998, France Telecom shed 40,000 jobs in the years after its privatization in efforts to become more efficient and competitive. In 2006, the company began another major restructuring to get leaner, with Lombard, then chairman and CEO, aiming to cut 22,000 jobs by 2008 and retrain at least 10,000 of its more than 100,000 workers.
In France, it’s standard for employees to have an unlimited permanent work contract—contrat à durée indéterminée (CDI) in French. Under standard CDI terms, any dismissal requires a long, drawn-out process, and layoffs of more than one employee must be referred to local government officials, Ulf Schäfer and Konstantin Korotov of business school ESMT Berlin wrote in a case study.
Lombard is accused of side-stepping these legal bounds by attempting to reduce staff by other morale-killing means: reassigning and relocating workers again and again, sidelining unwanted employees into menial jobs, bullying workers into resignations, according to Schäfer and Korotov’s report.
“I’ll get them out one way or another, through the window or through the door,” Lombard reportedly told senior managers in 2007, according to court documents.
An alarming pattern
The following years saw an alarming number of suicides or attempted suicides among French Telecom employees.
In July 2008, a 53-year-old technician named Jean-Michel Laurent threw himself under a train minutes after talking to a colleague.
Another technician named Michel Deparis, the one who described his workplace as “management by terror,” ended his life in July 2009, leaving a note that attributed the act to his “work at France Telecom.”
“That’s the only reason,” he wrote.
Yonnel Dervin, a technician who started working at France Telecom in 1979, was devastated by the deaths, but he and colleagues were not allowed to discuss them, he told L’Express last week. In September 2009, after a manager told him about a coming reassignment, Dervin stabbed himself in the belly in a conference room. He survived, but he has never worked again. That same month, 32-year-old Stéphanie Moison threw herself from a fourth floor window at the French Telecom office in Paris.
A company in crisis
France was shocked by the suicides, and the government set up an emergency meeting between Labor Minister Xavier Darcos and Lombard in September 2009. In February 2010, government inspectors said France Telecom had ignored warnings from doctors about the mental health of some of its employees.
Lombard stepped down as CEO of the company in March 2010 amid fierce criticism of his handling of the crisis. At trial on Tuesday, he called the suicides a “media crisis” and said there was nothing more he could’ve done.
“The transformations a business has to go through aren’t pleasant, that’s just the way it is,” he said in court, according to media reports.
Lombard’s successor and current CEO Stephane Richard in July 2010 publicly said he considered the company responsible for the suicide crisis as he introduced a new strategy for ending the deaths, winning back investor confidence, and boosting employee morale.
However, Richard’s stance seems at odds with his company’s official position. After the indictments last June, France Telecom, renamed Orange in 2013, denied that its policies destabilized employees, and said it would explain its position at trial. It has insisted that the rate of suicides among its employees was no higher than in the general population. It did not immediately return Fortune‘s request for comment.
What happens next?
This is the first time a French criminal court is considering a case of psychological harassment at such a large company. Orange reported more than €41 billion ($46 billion) in revenue in 2018. The trial will continue until July 12, allowing for more than 100 civil parties including victims, relatives, associations and unions to testify. A verdict is expected in August.
“It’s hard to prove a direct causal relationship between a person taking their life and their work,” Korotov told Fortune on Tuesday. “I didn’t expect this to go to trial. When the investigation started, it was already a powerful signal to the organization.”
If found guilty, the former managers could each face a year in prison and €15,000 in fines; Orange itself could face a sanction of €75,000. That sum would be negligible for France’s largest telecom, but it would represent a major victory for the families of those who took their lives. A union representative said this week he hoped the company would arrange a compensation fund for the affected. The court could order the company to grant additional damages to each civil party in the case, according to AP. Meanwhile, a spokesman for Orange told Bloomberg the company hasn’t set aside provisions for any financial sanctions.
“We’re hoping for an exemplary judgement, so business leaders who could potentially be tempted by these management methods are warned they cannot act with total impunity,” the CFE-CGC Orange union said in a statement.
If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 in the U.S. or text “start” to 741-741.