The former head of France Telecom, the world’s second-largest telecommunications firm, was formally placed under investigation Wednesday for his alleged role in a wave of staff suicides which prosecutors say amounted to psychological harassment.
Didier Lombard (pictured) was CEO of the company, which provides mobile and internet services through the Orange brand, during a sweeping restructuring period in which some 35 employees took their lives between 2008 and 2009.
Two other senior executives, 70-year-old Lombard’s deputy Louis-Pierre Wenes and the former head of human resources Olivier Barberot, were also due to appear before magistrates on Thursday.
Lombard, who was released on bail of 100,000 euros, resigned as CEO of the former state monopoly in 2010.
In his five years at the helm, the number of France-based employees fell from 130,000 to around 100,000. The company has some 180,000 employees worldwide.
‘Copycat suicide culture’
On Wednesday he denied that his strategy as head of the international operator was responsible for the number suicides, which he maintained was no higher than the national average.
In an editorial in left-leaning Le Monde on Wednesday, Lombard said: “The [restructuring] plans put in place by France Telecom were never intended to hurt the employees. 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],” he wrote. “But I absolutely reject that these plans, which were vital to France Telecom’s survival, were the direct cause of these human tragedies.”
In 2009 Lombard shocked France by claiming that there was a “mode de suicide” – a “copycat suicide culture” – at France Telecom.
Unions representing the company’s staff maintain that specific policies, including forced moves and impossible performance targets, were put in place specifically to crush morale and force employees to quit.
‘People were put under unbearable pressure’
“This was the biggest redundancy plan at a French company in decades,” Sebastien Crozier, head of the CFE-CGC union at France Telecom, told FRANCE 24.
“People were put under unbearable pressure. 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,” he added. “It was an organised and planned method to make employees’ lives difficult so that they would resign.”
Many of the workers who took their own lives directly blamed the pressure of the restructuring, and in 2010 a government report on the suicides concluded that the company had ignored advice from doctors about the effect these policies had on staff morale and on employees’ mental health.
Wednesday’s court hearing was the first time that a CEO of a multinational company has been bought before French magistrates for psychological harassment, a move the unions welcomed.
Crozier said the development was “important for all the staff and the families.”
“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.”
Lombard, if convicted, faces up to one year in prison and a 15,000-euro fine.