Accusation of harassment by managers leads to probe into France Telecom employee suicides

By Pierre-antoine Souchard, AP
Friday, April 9, 2010

Probe opened into France Telecom suicides

PARIS — A state prosecutor has ordered an investigation into accusations that harassment by managers at France Telecom was to blame for employee suicides.

The prosecutor’s office said Friday the probe follows a complaint last year by a union representing France Telecom employees as well as a report by the state labor inspector into the deaths. The investigation was ordered Thursday.

Unions blame the suicides on stresses brought on by corporate restructuring. The former state-run company laid off around 22,000 people between 2006 and 2008.

Dozens of French Telecom workers have committed suicide in recent months. Last month, the company unveiled a response plan that included the hiring of thousands of new sales and customer relations workers to ease the work pressures on its current staff.

“At one time, there was an intention to create a sense of frustration so employees would leave. The problem was that it worked too well,” said Jean-Paul Teissonniere, a lawyer for the union that filed the complaint.

A France Telecom lawyer disputed that claim.

“One cannot talk about a policy of moral harassment, each suicide must be put in its context,” said Claudia Chemarin, a company lawyer.

Concerns over the suicides led the company last year to put its restructuring on hold and conduct a series of meetings with employee representatives to address stress in the workplace.

Chairman Didier Lombard came under fire for his handling of the suicides, and handed over his role as chief executive last month to Stephane Richard.

A report by the French labor inspector’s office concluded that 14 cases of suicide, attempted suicide or depression can be considered directly linked with the company’s managerial techniques — such as pressuring employees to change jobs or giving them work the employees considered “devaluing.”

The inspector’s report found that some of the company’s restructuring targets, including layoffs, productivity increases, and thousands of job changes, could constitute moral harassment.

Such alleged tactics came down particularly hard on those employees who retained their civil service status — with its nearly iron-clad job protections — from before France Telecom’s privatization.

AP Business Writer Greg Keller contributed to this report.

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