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The horror of bullying at France Télécom

2nd January 2020

Between 2008 and 2009, 35 employees of France Télécom committed suicide. One woman threw herself from a fifth-floor window in front of her colleagues. Many had left notes explaining that the ‘terror’ of bullying from management had made them feel they had no other choice.

It’s beyond belief. How can a company culture be allowed to become so toxic that death becomes a preferable future?

In December 2019, the French courts finally decided on one-year prison sentences for the CEO at France Télécom, his deputy and the Director of Human Resources, finding them guilty of planning a campaign of “institutional harassment”. There had been a conscious strategy of bullying that was intended to “destabilise” employees and help with cost-cutting.

Long-serving staff were made to regularly relocate, posted to places far away from their families, purposely given no clear job role or tasks to work on.

CEO Didier Lombard denies management should bear any responsibility for the suicides and is due to appeal against the court ruling: “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.”

France Télécom had faced tough market conditions and challenges when it was privatised in 2004, many changes were needed. But what followed was a horrific example of leadership lacking Conversational Integrity – no trust, no honesty, no conversation.

Change management demands these things as a basic platform. There has to be trust between management and staff, a shared sense of direction and why changes need to happen. Leaders need to be clear about what that’s going to mean to individuals in practice, especially if that involves people losing their jobs or having their roles downgraded, opportunities curbed. There have to be grown-up conversations. Management have to keep talking, and they also have to keep listening.

In the extreme case of France Télécom, 35 lives would have been saved; 35 communities of families and friends spared the misery that came with the deaths; a workplace and its employees would not have needed to endure a reign of bullying and all of its long-term psychological fall-out.

The reality is that most organisations continue to lack Conversational Integrity, that critical ability to face up to difficult conversations. Too often when change is needed, leaders take a negative approach. They’re looking to avoid conflict and disruption. The ends justifying the means – it’s just business.

Good organisations with positive working cultures are capable of handling change far better than this. Rather than secret strategies, a mis-use of power, underhand manoeuvres, makes the delivery of change – even difficult, painful change – become part of the positive story of the organisation, adding to a sense of belonging, of community. Because there’s dialogue, understanding and empathy.

Arran Heal, Managing Director, CMP