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French Telecom Company Convicted Of 'Moral Harassment' After Employee Suicides

Didier Lombard, former chief executive of the French telecommunications powerhouse now known as Orange, leaves the courtroom Friday after receiving a jail sentence over a string of employee suicides.
Michel Euler
Didier Lombard, former chief executive of the French telecommunications powerhouse now known as Orange, leaves the courtroom Friday after receiving a jail sentence over a string of employee suicides.

The former CEO of a French telecommunications company has been sentenced to jail in connection with a series of employee suicides — with one worker taking their own life after describing "management by terror" at the firm.

The landmark ruling handed down Friday in a Paris courtroom caps the first time in France that a major company has been tried on a charge of "collective moral harassment" — and it delivered four months in jail and a fine of more than $16,000 for Didier Lombard, ex-CEO of the French phone and Internet provider now known as Orange.

The company itself must pay a fine 75,000 euros — or more than $83,000 — along with more in damages. Jail time and fines also were meted out for two other top executives, Lombard's former deputy Louis-Pierre Wenes and human resources Director Olivier Barberot, while a handful of other managers also received guilty verdicts.

The roots of the case date back about two decades, to a period when the company, then known by the name France Télécom, was still part of the government's Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. Once a state-run monopoly, the company sold off most of its shares and underwent a process of privatization in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

That process left its employees in an uncomfortable situation: still enjoying the strong employment protections of civil servants, but working for a management structure newly constrained by the marketplace and looking to shed costs to compete. As journalist Jake Cigainero reported for NPR earlier this year, Didier wanted to slash the company's staff by 20% — about 22,000 people — but most of the targeted employees resisted the idea of quitting.

So Didier and fellow executives and managers embarked on a campaign to get them to do so anyway — a kind of "management by terror," in the words of one employee's suicide note. Think: demotions, demeaning work, micromanagement, repeated reassignments or outright isolation. Or, as Lombard reportedly once put it, simply getting workers to leave "either through the window or through the door."

The court looked at 39 cases from the late 2000s — including 19 employees who took their lives at work or with suicide notes blaming the company, and 12 others who attempted to do so.

"I am committing suicide because of my work at France Telecom," said one suicide note reportedly displayed in court. "It's the only cause."

Lombard and his associates have long denied wrongdoing. Speaking with reporters back in 2009, he said "the pressure is necessary because we have to compete on the world market." A massive restructuring was necessary for the company's economic survival, he maintained, before acknowledging: "There is a way to be more humane in doing so."

Wenes has apologized and Lombard has admitted making a "blunder," but the executives have dismissed the idea that they played a significant role in a spate of suicides by people they didn't personally know. In 2010, Lombard left the company, which has since undergone a change in branding.

Lombard is expected to appeal Friday's verdict — which gave him, Wenes and Barberot each a yearlong sentence in jail, with eight months suspended.

The landmark case and its ruling have attracted attention in boardrooms and courtrooms across France. Reuters reports that while individual managers have been convicted of moral harassment before in France, this is the first time for a company.

"In financial terms, the sentence is light," one attorney specializing in white-collar crime told the wire service, "but this is the first time a French company gets a criminal conviction for moral harassment and that is very bad in terms of reputation."

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Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.