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.
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.