Are suicides of French Telecom workers related to workplace bullying?

As a followup to our post earlier this week on the bullying-related suicide of Wisconsin health care worker Jodie Zebell (link below), here is a report from Matthew Saltmarsh of the New York Times on an investigation in France of some 40 suicides of French Telecom employees that may be related to bullying at work:

The Paris prosecutor’s office said on Friday that it was investigating France Télécom over accusations of psychological harassment related to a recent spate of suicides.

…The case appears to be the first of its kind in France to examine such claims against a company and to study its system of management, said Dominique Decèze, an author and journalist who has written about work safety in France and France Télécom in particular.

More than 40 suicides have been reported since the start of 2008 among people who have worked for France Télécom, said the company, which employs about 100,000 people in France.

Connecting the tragic dots

In February we reported that four Australian workers were convicted and fined for their roles in the bullying-related suicide of a 19-year old waitress, Brodie Panlock:

Four workmates of a young waitress who killed herself by jumping off a building have been convicted and fined a total of $335,000 over relentless bullying before her death.

Brodie Rae Constance Panlock, 19, was subjected to the humiliating bullying by workmates at Cafe Vamp in Hawthorn, in Melbourne’s east, before she threw herself from a multi-storey car park in September 2006.

In short, evidence is mounting that in extreme circumstances, severe workplace bullying can lead to suicide.  The phenomenon even has a name — “bullycide” — that connects the behavior with the consequence.  This should serve as further response to those who dismiss workplace bullying as the whinings of disgruntled employees or as personality conflicts that should be sorted out privately.


Link to NYT article

Link to Jodie Zebell post

Link to post about French workplace bullying law

Link to article about the bullying-related suicide of Brodie Panlock

Hat tip to Michelle Smith, California Healthy Workplace Advocates

The workplace bullying suicide of Jodie Zebell, age 31

This week, a Wisconsin state legislative committee deliberating on the Healthy Workplace Bill heard about the 2008 suicide of Jodie Zebell, who took her own life after enduring months of workplace bullying at the clinic where she worked as a mammographer.  As reported by the Wisconsin State Journal:

In 2008, 31-year-old Jodie Zebell appeared to have a full life. The UW-Madison graduate was married with two young children and a part-time job as a mammographer at a La Crosse clinic, where she was praised as a model employee.

But soon afterward, Zebell became the target of co-workers who unfairly blamed her for problems at work. After she was promoted, the bullying intensified….(T)he boss joined in the harassment, filling Zebell’s personnel file with baseless complaints about her performance and loudly criticizing her in front of others.

“This went on for a series of months,” said [her aunt Joie] Bostwick, a Blue Mounds native who now lives in Naples, Fla. “It just got worse and worse.”

On Feb. 3, 2008, the day before she was to receive a poor job review, Jodie Zebell took her own life.

The Journal article recounts the testimony of many other workers who have been subjected to severe workplace bullying.  It closes with a plea from University of Wisconsin labor studies professor Corliss Olson, who has long been involved in advocacy and education efforts around workplace bullying:

Corliss Olson, associate professor at the UW-Extension’s School for Workers, said the bill is “desperately” needed.

Olson said most targets of bullying are “normal, competent people” who can be driven to disability or even death.

“This is a viciousness in the workplace that we need to stop,” Olson said. “We can and we must change our workplaces so they are civil.”

For good reason, much attention has been devoted in recent weeks to the suicide of Massachusetts teenager Phoebe Prince, who took her own life after a merciless campaign of bullying by her schoolmates.

In addition, we cannot forget that in severe circumstances, adults can be driven to suicide because of horrific treatment at work that threatens their security and livelihoods.


Wisconsin State Journal article

To get involving in supporting the Healthy Workplace Bill

For Help: If you find yourself or someone you care about at risk, please reach out for help.  The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached around the clock at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or  here.

Mine safety, unions, and social responsibility

Monday’s terrible explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia has resulted in the confirmed deaths of 25 miners, with 4 still unaccounted for as rescue and recovery efforts continue.  As details unfold, I’d like to consider two broader points related to mine worker safety.


Kudos to Newsweek for running a piece on its web edition by Jeneen Interlandi, raising the question of how unions can help to ensure safer working conditions for miners:

While above-ground equipment operators enjoy safer working conditions, underground or deep miners—like those killed in Monday’s explosion—still face a daily litany of dangers, and many of them insist unions still have a role to play in keeping them safe. “A union mine is a safer place, period,” says Chuck Nelson, a volunteer community organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition in Huntington, W.Va., and a former unionized deep miner. “Union miners have representation; they have a voice. They can report problems, file grievances, and look out for their union brothers.”

Activists and area miners say Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has a stern reputation for union busting: firing union workers in some cases, and shutting down entire mines that were unionized in others, a charge the company has denied. In 2007, the National Labor Relations Board determined that the company’s refusal to hire union miners was illegal.

Social responsibility

Against this backdrop are issues of law and social responsibility pertaining to miners who perform these dangerous jobs. West Virginia University law professor Anne Marie Lofaso raised a series of questions in a law review article that emerged from a symposium on mine worker safety held in response to the 2006 Sago Mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 12 miners.  Here is a portion of the summary of her article:

…The remarks in particular and the symposium in general use the Sago Disaster as a springboard for examining the various and complex questions related to the broader question – What role does or should the law play in protecting workers’ health and safety. This, of course, leads to the obvious question – Does regulation work? An administrative law and comparative approach to the regulatory issue helps to identify best practices that may save lives. But more profound questions quickly surface. What do we citizens of a “just” society owe workers who daily risk their lives for our collective comfort? If the technology is available to save workers’ lives, why hasn’t it been made available?


Newsweek article

Lofaso article

Workforce Management on bosses, attrition, and bullying

The April issue of Workforce Management magazine includes a very good package of related articles by Ed Frauenheim on management behavior, employee attrition, and workplace bullying in the midst of this recessionary environment: (Note that it may be necessary to obtain a free registration to access these articles.)

“Managers Don’t Matter”

That’s the contention of experts who argue that worker defections have little to do with how well or poorly management performs. Others say managing effectively is more important for employee retention than ever before.

“Bosses Don’t Drive Workers Away, Poll Concludes”

A survey by Workforce Management and Workplace Options finds that a bad connection with the immediate boss is not the main reason workers are thinking about leaving their firms.

“Recession Unleashes Boss Bullying”

A number of workplace experts say the economic slump has triggered a rise in belligerent behavior on the part of supervisors.

You’ll find a few quotes there from yours truly.  My basic point is that one reason why bad bosses are not driving away workers is that the bad economy is compelling underlings to deal with bullying behaviors until the job market improves.

Adversity, resilience, and trust

Organizational consultant Kevin Kennemer, whose Chief People Officer blog I often mention here, recently shared this observation with friends on a social networking site.  I quote it with his permission:

“I prefer to work with people who have dealt with adversity and arisen from brokenness. Those who have never been tested cannot be trusted.”

Kevin, that’s a pretty strong statement!  But I understand where you’re coming from, and I find myself in general agreement.

Defense mechanisms

I used to regard people who obviously had been weathered, bruised, or otherwise tested as damaged goods.  Some had an edge to them, others revealed vulnerabilities that I mistook for weaknesses, and most carried some sort of baggage.  Of course, this reaction was largely a way to avoid my own fears and insecurities.

Now, however, Kevin’s words make eminent sense to me. Obviously people don’t choose adversity and hard times.  And oh how I wish we could learn the lessons of those challenges without the struggle and pain.  But I value qualities of resilience a lot more than I did when I was younger.

Gaining authenticity

Folks who demonstrate the ability to recover from serious challenges and setbacks often gain a special wisdom.  It’s as if an authenticity switch was turned on.  You can talk to them about real stuff and they get it.  This quality, by the way, cuts across demographic, social, and political diversities.

By comparison, too many of the overly sheltered are prone to superficial thinking, act in an entitled way, and have a seeming inability to empathize.  They are great cheerleaders but can make for bad leaders.

Yes, these are generalizations, but they ring true to me.


In hiring and promoting people to positions of responsibility, ethical and legal boundaries may preclude us from asking folks to share all of their worst experiences and how they responded to them.  But my guess is that the answers would be very revealing in terms of who should get the job, and who can be trusted once in the position.

News flash! Unpaid internships may be illegal

On several occasions this blog has raised concerns about the legality of unpaid internships, despite the widespread use of this practice.  My basic point has been that many unpaid internships appear to violate federal and state minimum wage laws.

Of course, for years college and graduate students have signed on as unpaid interns with private, non-profit, and government employers.  Now, with the bad economy, many unemployed older workers are working for free as well as a way of re-entering the labor market or maintaining a presence in a profession.

Finally we’re seeing some attention being drawn to this form of exploitation:

Economic Policy Institute policy paper

Yesterday, the Economic Policy Institute released a policy memorandum authored by Kathryn Anne Edwards and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez,  recommending policy reforms concerning unpaid internships:

Despite internships’ importance to the labor market as a crucial form of vocational training and pre-employment vetting, they are only loosely regulated through vague and outdated employment law. Moreover, these regulations go essentially unenforced. . . . In light of these outcomes, this paper contends that the current system of regulations governing internships must be reformed, both for the immediate protection of students’ rights and also to maintain a strong and vibrant labor market that compensates all workers fairly.

Steven Greenhouse piece

Today, the New York Times ran a piece by labor reporter Steven Greenhouse questioning the legality of unpaid internships:

With job openings scarce for young people, the number of unpaid internships has climbed in recent years, leading federal and state regulators to worry that more employers are illegally using such internships for free labor.

Convinced that many unpaid internships violate minimum wage laws, officials in Oregon, California and other states have begun investigations and fined employers. Last year, M. Patricia Smith, then New York’s labor commissioner, ordered investigations into several firms’ internships. Now, as the federal Labor Department’s top law enforcement official, she and the wage and hour division are stepping up enforcement nationwide.


EPI policy memorandum

Greenhouse article

Previous post on unpaid internships

My 2002 law review article, “The Employment Law Rights of Student Interns”

Are girls getting meaner?

Are girls getting meaner?  Are they more likely than those of preceding generations to engage in violent and threatening behavior?

These are among the questions being asked in connection with the bullying-related suicide of teenager Phoebe Prince in Massachusetts and general concerns about bullying between kids.

Not so, say two researchers

Researchers Mike Males and Meda-Chesney Lind, writing in today’s New York Times (link below), say no, that it’s a myth that girls are becoming more violent:

But this panic is a hoax. We have examined every major index of crime on which the authorities rely. None show a recent increase in girls’ violence; in fact, every reliable measure shows that violence by girls has been plummeting for years. Major offenses like murder and robbery by girls are at their lowest levels in four decades. Fights, weapons possession, assaults and violent injuries by and toward girls have been plunging for at least a decade.

But what about verbal, indirect bullying?

The article offers an important response to the elevated levels of attention being devoted to school bullying. However, it doesn’t address some of the core concerns.

Verbal aggression stopping short of a threat of violence, exclusionary behaviors, and malicious gossip can be more common ways in which kids bully kids.  Is it possible that girls are more likely to use these behaviors than to engage in physical violence and threats?  And when they engage in these behaviors are they more likely to direct them toward other girls?

I raise these questions in part because of my understanding of bullying in the adult workplace.  Although women do not constitute the majority of workplace aggressors, when they bully they are more likely to target other women.  Furthermore, although this question is not fully settled, many believe that women are more likely to use indirect tactics to bully instead of direct, in-your-face behaviors.

Males and Lind suggest that we risk defaming a generation of girls by suggesting they are more violent than their predecessors.  As I see it, it’s not a question of defamation.  Rather, we’re seeing very disturbing behaviors in our schools today that, left unchecked, may continue to wreak havoc in our communities and workplaces tomorrow.

Males and Lind op-ed

Previous post about the suicide of teenager Phoebe Prince

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