As the two month trial that shocked France draws close, past executives of France Télécom might face prison terms over-organized workplace harassment that led to a number of staff suicides a decade ago.
Judges have been urged by the French state prosecutor to find the executives guilty of moral harassment and penalized with a maximum prison sentence of one year, plus large fines, after the details given in court concerning the havoc felt by workers over systematic bullying strategies aimed at dismissing staffs.
The trial against the former state-owned French telecoms firm, operating since 2013 as Orange – could set a world example with company managers held personally criminally answerable for strategic bullying aimed at pushing staff to leave.
Employees commit suicide between the years 2008 and 2009. The Company had been privatized and was undertaking a restructuring plan during which bosses set out to retrench more than a fifth of the workforce- more than 22000 jobs.
Some of the employees who had committed suicide left notes saying the company had made their lives unbearable.
Former CEO Didier Lombard, former head of human resources Olivier Barberot and seven other former France Télécom bosses were accused of putting in place a deadly management system of strategic harassment designed to force an employee to resign. Some employees were regularly forced to change jobs or relocate for work, finding their positions had been scrapped.
The charges were denied by the accused.
Families of the workers who had committed suicide gave accounts to court; Noémie Louvradoux spoke on how her father, Rémy Louvradoux, a 57 years old public sector worker at France Télécom, took his own life few days to her 18th birthday.
“We loved my father. You killed him. And all for what?” Noémie said in court when addressing the former executives. “France Télécom had destroyed his life and left him no way out.” She said.
Louvradoux had worked his way up in the firm from a low position to a more senior local role, his job was scrapped in 2006 when he was made to relocate and change his job four times in three years, and while trying to avoid more change of work he worked as hard as he could. Lawyers said his case was said to sum up the deadly working environment. In 2009 he wrote to company bosses complaining of an endemic situation saying: “Nothing is being done to face it up to it: suicide remains the only solution.”
The CEO, Lombard, said in court that he never received the letter, which might have ended up with the human resources department.
Outside court Louvradoux’s son said: “Fear has to change sides. These people have to stop feeling impunity, so that they never do this again and so that others never do it again in other companies because they know they’ll risk prison.” state prosecutors endorsed maximum penalties, including a €75,000 (£67,000) fine to be paid by the firm.
Daniel Doublet another employee explained management stopped assigning a task to him. He lives around Paris but was relocated to Besançon, 280 miles (450km) from his family, and yet his task was never defined. “Imagine the isolation I felt,” he said. “It was as if I was nothing … a parasite.”
Michel Bugead’s widow, another staff who committed suicide said he had written by email to management to express concerns. She said he, like many others, “was very attached to the company which had allowed him to rise up the ladder in society.”
The former CEO of France Telecom Didier Lombard denied in court telling a group of managers in 2006 that he would “get people to leave one way or another, either through the window or the door.” Trade Unionists wore T-shirts printed with the words “the window or the door” he denied that management bore any responsibility.
“The transformations a business has to go through aren’t pleasant; that’s just the way it is. There’s nothing I could have done,” Lombard said in court.
It got to a point when he was describing how he traveled to a site to tell workers if they would not close, and the judge asked: “Are you crying, Mr. Lombard?” He said that because he was seen as a big executive, “people think I don’t have a heart. That’s not true.”
The case is a first for a blue-chip company listed on France’s CAC 40 stock index and the first time managers could be alleged criminally responsible for implementing tactics of bullying even if they had not dealt directly with the staff affected.
“There is no question that in designing a restructuring process with huge job cuts and transfers … the managers knew they were destabilizing the workers.” The state prosecutor Françoise Benezech said in court.
Judges are expected to take several weeks to return their verdict while the trial ends on Thursday.