Authorities in France have put the former head of France Telecom, Didier Lombard, under a formal investigation in connection with a spate of more than 30 employee suicides at his company in 2008 and 2009 under his watch.
Two other former senior France Telecom executives, former deputy CEO Louis-Pierre Wenes and former chief of human resources Olivier Barberot, have also been summoned by investigators.
Lombard, who was forced to resign in 2010 after the resultant negative publicity arising from worker deaths, has said that corporate restructuring measures at France Telecom likely upset employees, but he denied they committed suicide.
“The [restructuring] plans put in place by France Telecom were never intended to hurt the employees,” he wrote in the Le Monde newspaper on Wednesday.
“On the contrary, the plans were destined to save the company and its workforce. I am conscious of the fact that the company’s upheaval may have caused problems [for some employees]. [But] I categorically reject the idea that [restructuring] plans vital to the survival of the company might have been the cause of human tragedies.
In 2005, when he took over debt-ridden France Telecom as chief executive, Lombard instituted a massive restructuring program that slashed about 22,000 jobs and increased the workload and hours of workers retained, which reportedly hurt morale.
Between January 2008 and April 2011, a total of 60 France Telecom employees killed themselves, leading to the forced resignation of deputy CEO Wenes. (The company employs a total of about 100,000 people in France.)
Many of the people who committed suicide were white-collar workers who left notes blaming the pressure they felt from higher- ups in management. As the company gradually moved from state-owned enterprise to private entity, its work culture changed dramatically, reflecting President Nicolas Sarkozy’s embrace of American-style corporate practices.
Lombard defended himself by declaring that since the government still retained a minority stake in the company, he was under pressure to deliver performance targets during a period of economic malaise.
However, unions claimed that Lombard sought to impose his own impossible performance targets on harried employees in order to pressure them to quit.
“People were put under unbearable pressure, Sebastien Crozier, head of the CFE-CGC union at France Telecom, told FRANCE 24. Thousands were forced to move geographically or to take on new job functions. They couldn’t take it.”
“The whole strategy was to reduce the number of employees. It was an organized and planned method to make employees’ lives difficult so that they would resign.”
Crozier also praised the decision to investigate Lombard.
“Since Lombard has left the company, the number of suicides has dropped by two thirds,” he said. “We need to ask why the rate was three times higher when he was CEO.”
Upon completion of the investigation, formal charges may be brought against Lombard, citing, among other things, that he might have psychologically “harassed” his underlings into killing themselves.
While he is not being detained, Lombard was required to pay bail of €100,000 ($125,000).
If the probe leads to criminal charges and conviction, he could face up to one year in prison and a €15,000 fine.
France Telecom is not the only French concern that has endured a wave of employee suicides -- a few years ago, workers at two French auto companies, Renault and Peugeot Citroen, killed themselves, reportedly over pressures resulting from restructuring and changed assignments.