France Telecom and former managers on trial over staff suicides

France Telecom chief executive Didier Lombard will appear at the Paris Tribunal during a four-day trial starting on May 6, 2019, in which they will be tried for "psychological harassment".
France Telecom chief executive Didier Lombard will appear at the Paris Tribunal during a four-day trial starting on May 6, 2019, in which they will be tried for "psychological harassment".PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (BLOOMBERG) - France's biggest phone company, its former chief executive officer and six others go on trial on Monday (May 6) over a wave of employee suicides more than a decade ago.

Years of job cuts and restructuring at France Telecom stressed employees, with some eventually taking their own lives, according to prosecutors.

Ex-CEO Didier Lombard, his then deputy Louis-Pierre Wenes and former human resources head Olivier Barberot are accused of psychological harassment in the workplace. Four others including Brigitte Dumont, now the company's head of corporate and social responsibility, are charged with aiding and abetting the crime.

The former monopoly, now called Orange SA, let working conditions deteriorate through a succession of chaotic reorganisations in which staff were made to change roles and relocate, damaging their physical and mental health, the prosecutors say.

Last June, when indictments were announced, Orange denied that its policies destabilised employees, and said it would explain its position at hearings. It declined to comment last week.

It's the first time a French criminal court is tackling a case of psychological harassment at such a big company.

"We're hoping for an exemplary sentence, so that business leaders who could potentially be tempted by these management methods are warned they cannot act in total impunity," the CFE-CGC Orange union said last month in a statement.

The company responded to the more than 30 suicides of workers between 2008 and 2010 with a five-year, €900 million (S$1.37 billion) plan to improve conditions including the recruitment of an extra 10,000 employees, said Bruno Mettling, who oversaw some of the changes as head of human resources. He's now chairman of Orange's Middle East and Africa division.

"A new social contract had to be reinvented," Mettling said in an interview.

The trial will last until July 12 at the Paris tribunal, with a verdict expected several weeks later. Orange hasn't set aside provisions for any financial sanctions, a spokesman said.