France Telecom forced to account for human cost of restructuring

The French government wants to know why so many of the company's staff are committing suicide...

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

At a time when so many big companies are being forced into major restructuring and redundancy programmes, the case of France Telecom is a cautionary tale. Last week an employee at its mobile subsidiary Orange threw herself out of a fourth floor window, becoming the 23rd suicide in the last 18 months at Europe’s third-biggest telecoms firm. Now the French government, which still owns a quarter of the company, has stepped in: FT’s chief exec is being hauled in to see the Minister for Work, while finance minister Christine Lagarde has called for a board meeting ‘as a matter of urgency’ to reassure staff that the problem is being addressed. It’s a harsh reminder of the savage human consequences of these corporate turnarounds.

According to the unions, the high suicide rate is down to France Telecom’s ongoing ‘modernisation’ programme, which has seen 22,000 jobs lost and 10,000 people change jobs (often from a technical to a customer service or sales role). Last week’s incident was further grist to their mill: the woman in question had just attended a meeting to discuss a reorganisation of the customer service department she worked in. In a separate incident last week, a technician based in Troyes stabbed himself in the stomach after being told he would have to take a new job.

The unions are in no doubt that France Telecom has to bear some of the responsibility for all this – the suicides are ‘a call for help about a problem linked to the place where the act happens’, one official said. Now it seems the Government agrees with them. Labour minister Xavier Darcos is set to meet France Telecom boss Didier Lombard tomorrow to discuss the problem, while Lagarde has also waded in, demanding an extraordinary board meeting.

We're not sure whether one should read anything into this about the way French staff view the world of work - for instance, that there's a greater tendency across La Manche to see jobs as being for life. But either way, the company obviously could have done more to help these people cope. It's now promised to halt restructuring for the time being while it ramps up its efforts to deal with workplace stress, including hiring some more HR people.

A spokesman also pointed out to the Times that France as a whole has a high suicide rate, of 17.8 per 100,000 people. But since that's about the number of people France Telecom employs, its suicide rate is clearly well above average. So there’s definitely a problem here that needs to be addressed; and if external intervention forces the company to take a slightly more enlightened approach to change management and workplace stress, then so much the better. Although we’re not entirely convinced that this kind of government-led public castigation is the best way of doing it...


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