France Telecom Case Study

Its troubles are all the more relevant as the group straddles a fault line between France's hugely protected public sector and a turbulent global telecoms market. On a national level, public-private tectonic movement has gathered pace during the global economic crisis.

Some 65pc of France Telecom's domestic workforce of 100,000 are public servants, and as such are virtually unsackable. The average age is 48. "Time to move" was the slogan behind CEO Didier Lombard's drive to frequently re-deploy much of the company's workforce, shifting them between sites and jobs according to internal demand.

The group has come a long way since it was part-privatised in 1998. By 2005, the state's share had dropped to below 50pc and now stands at 27pc. After buying Orange at the height of the telecoms boom in 2000, France Telecom's €70bn (£64bn) deficit matched Russia's Soviet-era foreign debt. Major re-structuring has halved that figure, but at a human cost.

"In a nutshell, it's gone from a public service culture to a cash machine," said Ivan du Roy, author of Stressed Orange, a book about the company's angst.

Union leaders blame the suicides on a brutal, target-obsessed company culture in which, they say, formerly well-qualified and adjusted employees – most in their 40s and 50s – are pushed around like pawns with the unofficial aim of "breaking" them so they will leave.

Some 22,000 have left in the last four years. But many remain and have been shifted into high-pressure call centres where individuals compete for monthly results-based bonuses.

This was the case for Mr Rouanet, who had moved two months previously from a back-office job at Orange to a "reactive" call-centre where he had to field customer complaints but also try to charm them into buying new services. "Every night he would say: 'I can't go on, it's not for me,' " said his colleague, Danièle Rochet. "It's not easy to become a salesman, to cope with the pressure of targets."

For months, management refused to accept there was direct link between any deaths and its policies. Mr Lombard ill-advisedly called the suicides a "fashion" – mode in French – before saying he had meant to say "mood". He now admits that he "probably made some mistakes" by "injecting too much uncertainty into the system". He has now set up a helpline, offered more counselling and put a freeze on all staff transfers until October 31.

He has also stressed that the company's suicide rate is now below the national average of 17.6 suicides a year for every 100,000 people (compared to 6.8 in Britain). There were 29 suicides in 2002, 22 in 2003, 12 in 2008 and 12 so far this year.

The supposed "rash" of suicides at France Telecom should also be viewed in its national context. France has one of the highest work-related suicide rates in the world: around 400 per year.

Philippe Askenazy from TNS-Sofres, the polling institute, said: "Anglo-Saxons have a utilitarian rapport with their job. For them, it's a bread-earner. For the French it's more of an emotional thing."

In an essay out next week, Eric Maurin, an economist at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, says that the French are "paralysed" with fear about losing "stable" jobs. They would rather "cling on to a job where one is unhappy rather than take a less protected post".

The suicide scandal has already impacted France Telecom's business and strategy. It has reportedly put off a plan to change the names of its French brands to Orange due to fears they be mocked as "Orange pressé".

In a conference call between 400 managers this week published by the Capital website, one regional manager also said the number of people ending subscriptions "on ethical grounds" had doubled in a week. He said operators were at a loss as to how to respond to callers who remarked: "I won't bother you further, you might kill yourself."

The French telecoms company Orange is on "serious alert" after reports of a fresh spate of work-related suicides.

Since the beginning of the year, 10 of its employees have killed themselves – most for reasons "explicitly related" to their jobs, according to the company's own stress and mental health watchdog.

Orange was formerly the state-owned France Telecom, which reported a similar wave of deaths between 2008 and 2009. The number of suicides so far this year is almost as high as for the whole of last year, when 11 workers took their own lives.

Of the 10 deaths this year – three women and seven men, the youngest aged 25 – eight have been directly linked to work, according to the observatory for stress and forced mobility, which is responsible for monitoring work conditions at the company.

On Wednesday the French health minister, Marisol Touraine, called the new deaths worrying. "The company has to take the necessary measures. I know that the company and the unions are alert to this … we cannot leave the situation as it is," she told French radio.

The observatory was set up after the earlier wave of suicides caused widespread concern about working conditions and practices at the firm.

The company's former boss Didier Lombard resigned after 35 employee killed themselves between 2008 and 2009. He was lambasted and forced to apologise after suggesting suicide was a "fashion" at the company.

In 2012, Lombard was put under formal police investigation accused of installing "brutal management methods" that amounted to "moral harassment".

Le Parisien published an internal company document from 2006 in which Lombard allegedly told directors he was determined to cut 22,000 jobs, adding "I'll do it in one way or the other, by the window or by the door."

Lombard denied that his methods were the cause of the deaths. He remains under investigation.

An official report by the works inspectorate in 2010 blamed a climate of "management harassment" that it said had "psychologically weakened staff and attacked their physical and mental health".

Since then, Patrick Ackermann, delegate for the SUD union and member of the observatory, said the situation had eased, but last month the group issued a warning to management of a "dramatic worsening" of morale within the company to 2007 levels.

"For the last two years, the pressure from management has started again and working conditions have once more deteriorated," it said. Factors driving workers to depression included a reduced workforce being asked to produce better results, staff being obliged to relocate, the threat of site closures and job losses, and an atmosphere of increased competition between workers.

"Also, what we are seeing among mid-level directors is a return to old and brutal methods of management," the observatory said in a statement.

France Telecom was privatised in 2004, sparking a major restructuring and the loss of scores of jobs. The company, known since last year as Orange to match the name of its mobile phone operation, currently employs around 100,000, but has pledged further cuts to the workforce.

In a statement, Orange admitted there had been "several suicides" this year, adding: "Each of these acts is by its nature singular and stem from different contexts. But these situations remind us to be vigilant and for the need to repeatedly question the efficiency of the numerous preventative measures put in place several for the past few years."

The firm's mediator, Jean-François Colin, will meet with staff representatives on Friday to talk about "preventative measures" for those at risk.

France has a suicide rate of 14.7 per 100,000 inhabitants, well above the European average of 10.2 per 100,000 people, three times higher than in Italy and Spain and twice the rate in Britain. Of the estimated 10,000 suicides in France each year – 27 every day – at least 400 can be directly linked to stress caused by work, but employment concerns are believed to be a factor in many more deaths.

In May 2012, the left-leaning newspaper Libération published a manifesto signed by 44 French psychiatrists, sociologists and politicians calling for a national observatory to monitor suicide cases and understand the phenomenon with a view to better prevention.

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