News & Politics

French Telecom Executives Going to Jail for 'Moral Harassment' in Employee Suicides

Several high-level executives, including a former CEO, are going to jail for “moral harassment” relating to several dozen suicides at the French telecom giant Orange. The judge claimed managers used “forbidden” methods to create “a climate of anxiety” in reaching the goal of cutting one in five jobs — 22,000 in total — within three years. This apparently led to employees becoming despondent and committing suicide.

CBS News:

The defendents [sic] were also ordered to pay a combined three million euros to the plaintiffs as well as victims’ families.

Lombard’s lawyer, Jean Veil, said he and the others would appeal the ruling, calling it “total misreading of the law.”

During the trial in July, Lombard denied that management bore any responsibility for the deaths, despite having told managers in 2006 that he would “get people to leave one way or another, either through the window or the door”.

Hyperbole? Or an official company directive? It apparently didn’t matter.

Evidence presented to the court painted a picture of intimidation: workers suddenly ordered to change the nature or location of their job, threats of pay cuts, and repeated emails encouraging people to leave in order to meet the job cuts goal.

Some of the victims, including one who jumped out of a fifth-floor window in front of her colleagues, left notes expressing deep unhappiness at work.

To what degree was the work environment responsible for the suicide? Were these all normal people happily married with no problems at home, or with drugs or alcohol?

This is a case where the unions and the families saw an opportunity to single out an entity with deep pockets who could be blamed for the deaths of people who, by definition, are emotionally unstable.

Patrick Ackerman of SUD, the first union to lodge a complaint against France Telecom, said the judgment “allows something to be built that will challenge policies on management methods” in the future, while also better characterising workplace harassment.

But “we must also review prevention policy in the light of the France Telecom case, to ask ourselves how this could have been possible.”

Perhaps in the future, all employees should undergo a thorough, yearly psychological examination to determine their predilection for suicide. How else is a company going to protect itself?

I don’t think American law would recognize this sort of legal responsibility — now. But liberal judges who want to “fight for the little guy” or for social justice at the expense of the law and fairness probably can’t wait for a case like this to fall in their lap.