Another spate of suicides at Orange France

Martyn Warwick
By Martyn Warwick

Mar 20, 2014

It has emerged that, since January 1 this year, ten Orange employees have committed suicide and further that 80 per cent of those deaths were "explicitly related" to stresses and strains caused by day-to-day pressures of work and the apparently escalating and unrelenting demands of target-oriented, target-driven micro-management across various levels across the organisation.

Orange has certainly slimmed-down since France Telecom was privatised a decade ago but still retains some 100,000 employees - although further job cuts are planned. This Sword of Damocles dangling overhead indefinitely is sapping morale. Last year, 11 Orange France employees killed themselves, a figure well within the statistical norm for an organisation of that size. But ten victims in less than three months is statistically significant and now the alarm bells are ringing again.

You may remember that back in 2008 and 2009 the operator experienced an unprecedented spate of 35 work-related suicides over a 15-month period as huge job- and cost-cutting programmes allied to new company policy of so-called "macho management" caused ructions and disturbed what, hitherto, had been for many employees a cosseted and easy life as unsackable civil ervants. These overly-bureaucratic and legendarily inefficient and incredibly rude and pompous "fonctionaires" delighted in doing very little whilst treating customers with incredible contempt. Unsurprisingly theu were derided and reviled by the French public and there was great delight when finally they were forced to leave the womb of the state and face life in the real world.

The change shocked the workforce and as the days of two- and three-hour subsidised lunch breaks and five- and six-week of annual holidays came to an end the management style at the telco transmuted from the supine and spineless to one of bullying, threatening and the instillation of fear via threats to job security and ever-changing, ever more demanding and increasingly unachievable targets.

It really was a case of "from one extreme to the other" and the tough style came straight from the top. In public CEO Didier Lombard came over as a hard-nosed hard man determined to drag the telco kicking and screaming into the 21st century. He played up to his macho image but lost much public approval when, at the time of the first rash of suicides, he displayed a marked lack of empathy for grieving families and was then ruthlessly pilloried by the French media and the political establishment when he opined that suicide had become a "fashion" within the carrier. It was the start of his downfall.

Things got worse when the journal Le Parisien got hold of a document that was intended only for the sight of France Telecom's top executives and the board of directors. Written by M. Lombard in 2006 it detailed his determination to force through a programme of 22,000 job cuts. In the event, his choice of phrase was both unfortunate and telling. He wrote, "I'll do it [cut the workforce] one way or the other. Either by the window or by the door."

The document caused outrage and in 2012 Didier Lombard was placed under official investigation for introducing a climate and culture of "management harrassment" designed "to weaken by attacking their physical and mental wellbeing and health". M. Lombard remains under investigation to this very day.

Things got quietly better after 2009 and Lombard's forced departure from Orange but now the "Observatory for Stress and Forced Mobility" at France's Works Directorate has issued a "serious alert" and raised a red flag about working conditions and stress at the telco.

This time around though, Orange is taking things rather more seriously rather more quickly. In a statement the company says, "While each of these acts... involves different contexts, these situations remind us to be vigilant and for the need repeatedly to question the efficiency of the numerous preventative measure put in place several years ago".

Meanwhile, France's health Minister, Marisol Touraine, says the new outbreak of suicides "is worrying" and adds that "the company has to take all the necessary measures to minimise suicide amongst its employees. We cannot and will not leave the situation as it is".

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