France Télécom bullying verdict: Guilty, with bosses sent to prison

In a closely-watched legal case about a horrific campaign of workplace bullying and abuse linked to several dozen suicides by workers approximately a decade ago, executives of France Télécom have been convicted and sentenced to short prison terms for violating France’s moral harassment code. Angelique Chrisafis reports for the Guardian (link here):

Former executives at France Télécom have been given prison sentences and fines after being found guilty of “institutional harassment” and creating a culture of routine workplace bullying that sparked a number of suicides at the company.

The landmark ruling is likely to send shockwaves through the French business world. It is the first time managers have been held criminally responsible for implementing a general strategy of bullying even if they had not dealt directly with the staff involved.

France’s moral harassment code allows for both civil (damages to claimant) and criminal (potential prison terms) claims associated with bullying, mobbing, and harassment. The criminal provisions are rarely used, but the allegations behind the France Télécom case were supported by considerable evidence.

As further reported by the Guardian‘s Chrisafis:

The court heard harrowing accounts of what one employee had called a terrifying management strategy to destabilise workers. Families described systematic psychological abuse against staff as bosses focused ruthlessly on cost-cutting and job cuts.

Between 2008 and 2009, 35 employees killed themselves. The company had been privatised and was undertaking a restructuring plan during which bosses set out to cut more than a fifth of the workforce – more than 22,000 jobs.

The investigation focused on the cases of 39 employees, 19 of whom killed themselves, 12 who attempted to, and eight who suffered from acute depression or were signed off sick as a result of the pressure.

At least one of the defendants has indicated that an appeal will be filed, so the legal proceedings in this case are probably far from over.

Relevance to the U.S.

As I wrote earlier this year about this case, American readers may be asking, if France Télécom wanted to reduce their workforce, then why didn’t they simply do a mass layoff? In France, employees have much stronger protections against termination compared to those in the United States, where most workers are subject to the rule of at-will employment, which allows employers to discharge them without cause. In a somewhat sick irony, the stronger French worker protections likely led France Télécom bosses to opt for a campaign of virulent bullying and abuse to prompt workers to leave “voluntarily.”

In the U.S., in most instances it would be unnecessary for an employer to use bullying to reduce a workforce by attrition, because it could announce a layoff for reasons of finances or restructuring and that would be that. Of course, we also know that this considerable power to hire and terminate hasn’t prevented bullying and mobbing from occurring in American workplaces — buttressed by the reality that it is often a legally enabled form of abuse.

Fallout

It’s too early to gauge the long-term impact of this court decision. This is a trial court ruling, subject to appeal, so it may be some time before this proceeding becomes final.

Nonetheless, we can hope that news coverage of this trial and verdict will buoy efforts to enact workplace anti-bullying laws around the world. This includes the Healthy Workplace Bill here in America, which continues to face strong corporate and employer opposition.

The fact that corporate executives have been found guilty and sentenced to prison for engaging in severe bullying and abuse will no doubt be satisfying to so many people who have experienced this form of targeted mistreatment. However, this case also illustrates how the wheels of justice can grind very slowly with only modest results. The events in question took place over a decade ago. The three convicted executives received one-year prison sentences, with eight months suspended, plus relatively small fines. That’s a small price to pay for abuse associated with many deaths and ruined lives.

Furthermore, it took dozens of completed and attempted suicides to call attention to what happened within this company. In the meantime, workplace bullying and mobbing continues to go unchecked in countless numbers of workplaces. Even if, thank goodness, the abusive behavior does not always translate into suicidal ideation, it leaves in its trail considerable trauma and severely damaged livelihoods and careers.

Regardless, I’ll take this development as a firm step in the right direction. Bullied France Télécom workers and their families received some semblance of justice by this verdict. Furthermore, it is bringing worldwide attention to the role of the law in preventing and responding to targeted work abuse. 

France Télécom executives are on trial for workplace bullying associated with dozens of worker suicides

Former France Télécom executives are on trial for alleged violations of France’s “moral harassment” code, in a case alleging that systematic bullying tactics were employed to reduce the company’s workforce. During the time in question, 35 workers died by suicide, and many left notes explaining that working conditions had pushed them beyond their ability to endure. Angelique Crisafis reports for the Guardian (link here):

Former executives at France Télécom could face prison over organised workplace harassment that led to a spate of staff suicides a decade ago, as a two-month trial that shocked France draws to a close this week.

French state prosecutors have urged judges to find the executives guilty of moral harassment and hand down the maximum prison sentence of one year, plus large fines, after details emerged in court of the turmoil felt by workers over systematic bullying tactics aimed at pushing staff to leave.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: Affirming dignity at work and elsewhere

The United Nations has designated December 10 as Human Rights Day, and this year it commemorates the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. From the 70th anniversary webpage:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a milestone document in the history of human rights. Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.

Article 23 of the UDHR specifically addresses work, and there’s a lot more that applies to workplace conditions in more general terms as well:

You can access the full UDHR here.

If you’d like a more interactive way of learning about the UDHR, take a look at this neat card set designed and published by Dr. Diane Perlman, a clinical and political psychologist and dispute resolution specialist. I met Dr. Perlman at the just-completed annual workshop organized by the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, and I was delighted to pick up a set.  

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I cited the UDHR in my 2009 law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law” (University of Richmond Law Review), in which I posited that human dignity should be our framing concept for designing and implementing labor and employment laws.

Guardian investigation: Bullying behaviors rife at top U.K. universities

Hannah Devlin and Sarah Marsh report on a Guardian newspaper investigation indicating that a culture of bullying is “thriving” at leading British universities:

Hundreds of academics have been accused of bullying students and colleagues in the past five years, prompting concerns that a culture of harassment and intimidation is thriving in Britain’s leading universities.

A Guardian investigation found nearly 300 academics, including senior professors and laboratory directors, were accused of bullying students and colleagues.

Dozens of current and former academics spoke of aggressive behaviour, extreme pressure to deliver results, career sabotage and HR managers appearing more concerned about avoiding negative publicity than protecting staff.

Their feature-length article goes into detail about their investigative findings and shares stories of individuals who have experienced bullying behaviors in academic workplaces.

When media devote coverage to bullying and related behaviors in academe

This is not the first time that the Guardian has highlighted bullying and abuse at work. The newspaper ran a week-long series on workplace bullying in 2017. And we’ve known for a long time that academe can be a petri dish for these behaviors. In fact, “Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven?” (2009, revised 2014), is one of this blog’s most popular posts.

As I discussed in my last entry, when major, mainstream media outlets devote feature stories to workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse, it serves as a powerful message that we must take these destructive behaviors seriously. It’s also noteworthy when a major newspaper with a global readership deems that bullying in academe merits significant coverage.

Here in the U.S., coverage of academic bullying has been limited primarily to specialized media covering higher education (such as the Chronicle of Higher Education). My own interest in workplace bullying was originally stoked some 20 years ago by my awareness of such behaviors in academic (as well as legal) workplaces. So, cheers to the Guardian for diving in with this piece. It makes a difference.

Disposable workers

This is hard to fathom, but unfortunately the headline pictured above — “A maid begged for help before falling from a window in Kuwait. Her boss made a video instead.” — tells the heart of the story. Avi Selk reports for the Washington Post:

The floor looks clean in this high-rise apartment, seven stories above Kuwait City traffic. Not a smudge in sight on the picture window. On the other side of the glass, the maid is hanging on by one knuckle, screaming.

“Oh crazy, come here,” a woman says casually in Arabic, holding a camera up to the maid.

“Hold on to me! Hold on to me!” the maid yells.

Instead, the woman steps back. The maid’s grip finally slips, and she lands in a cloud of dust, many stories below.

The maid — an Ethiopian who had been working in the country for several years, according to the Kuwait Times — survived the fall. The videographer, her employer, was arrested last week on a charge of failing to help the worker.

Selk adds that more instances of domestic workers falling off of buildings have been reported. Human rights advocates are sounding alarms about this horrible incident and others against the background of a system of servitude known as kafala, whereby foreign workers surrender basic labor rights in return for work visas.

The spectrum of workplace mistreatment runs from lighter instances of intentional incivility all the way to slavery and torture. This event in Kuwait, and references to the policy of kafala, remind us that forms of abuse tending toward, and falling squarely within, the latter still exist in this world.

Enter therapeutic jurisprudence

These concerns also raise the fundamental importance of bringing dignity at work into therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”), a school of legal theory and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of laws, legal processes, and legal institutions.

As close readers of this blog know, I have been active in the TJ movement for many years, to the point of regarding it as my primary lens for examining law and policy. In fact, I’m part of a wonderful group of law teachers, lawyers, and judges who are forming a new international, non-profit organization dedicated to advancing therapeutic jurisprudence on a global scale. We will be launching this new entity at the biennial International Congress on Law and Mental Health, to be held this year in Prague, Czech Republic.

To date, much TJ activity has been concentrated in legal areas such as mental health and disability law, criminal law, dispute resolution and the administration of justice, and family law. Laws and policies relating to work, workers, and workplaces, however, have not received as much attention. Along with other folks dedicated to advancing dignity at work, I look forward to playing an energetic role in changing that state of affairs.

You see, it’s important to remember that individual incidents of worker abuse, including this one in Kuwait, are enabled or validated by policies such as kafala, thus melding the mistreatment with the tacit approval of law. Changing laws does not necessarily change individual behavior, but it creates enforceable norms that can inform people’s decisions about how to treat others.

The Guardian’s “bullying at work week”: Soliciting your story

Between April 3 and April 6 (UK time), The Guardian, a prominent British newspaper, will be accepting readers’ stories about being bullied at work, for possible inclusion in a special Careers section feature and its social media channels. An encrypted online form requests categories of information from contributors and allows them to limit how their stories are used, including decisions on anonymity and confidentiality.

The Guardian‘s Charlotte Seager explains the rationale for this invitation:

From bosses who try to sabotage their employees’ efforts, to colleagues who intimidate their co-workers or provoke them to tears: bullying at work is surprisingly common.

Nearly a third of workers in the UK experience ongoing intimidation. And with the rise in zero-hour contracts, insecure employment and cuts to legal aid, the problem can only get worse.

Studies show that bullies tend to be bosses or those in authority, making it hard for workers to speak up. “It is easy to denounce bullying,” says employment writer Stefan Stern. “The harder task is to understand why it is happening and to suggest ways of dealing with it.”

Of course, decisions on whether and how to go public with a personal bullying or mobbing story should be made carefully and even strategically, with an eye toward desired outcomes and possible career impacts. This includes, where applicable, potential legal implications, especially for those with pending claims. (Legal protections against workplace bullying in the U.K., while not ideal, are generally stronger than those in the U.S., so American readers should take this into account when considering this opportunity to contribute their stories.)

That said, this is an unusually open invitation by a prominent and respected periodical with global reach. I can’t wait to see what the published feature looks like.

The Guardian‘s “bullying at work week”

The online story solicitation is part of The Guardian‘s “bullying at work week,” a series of features running now in the newspaper. Today’s feature is “The psychology of a workplace bully,” and tomorrow’s is a live chat on dealing with bullying at work.

As an American reader and Guardian subscriber, I am both impressed and envious. Impressed because a major newspaper with an international readership takes workplace bullying seriously, especially from a target’s perspective. Envious because, at least for now, I can’t imagine a U.S. counterpart doing the same thing. This series demonstrates the degree to which public awareness and understanding of workplace bullying are becoming more widely mainstreamed elsewhere, and I hope that we in the States can reach that point sooner than later.

A talk on advancing dignity in our workplaces

For those of you who would like to contemplate the big picture of why we need to inject the value of human dignity into our workplaces, you’re invited to watch this 40-minute talk that I gave at the 2014 annual workshop of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) in New York City. It was part of a public program on “Work That Dignifies the Lives of All People,” [Note: You may have to “rewind” the YouTube video to the beginning, as some for some weird reason, the talk sometimes starts at around the 10 minute mark!]

The talk gave me a chance to discuss many topics that I’ve raised here on this blog, such as workplace bullying, the low-wage economy, and the ravages of globalization. I then tied them together under the overall rubric of worker dignity.

Next I asked participants to consider our respective roles in promoting worker dignity. At the very least, I suggested, we can do our best to practice the Golden Rule at work, treating others as we would have them treat us. That’s not always easy, but it’s an especially good starting place.

This morning I was poking around the HumanDHS website and to my surprise found the video! I hadn’t posted it before, but I’m pleased to share it with you now. Introducing me is HumanDHS director Linda Hartling. As I mentioned in my last post, I just finished participating in this year’s HumanDHS workshop, and it once again was a tremendously rewarding experience.

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