France Telecom investigated over spate of staff suicides

Company denies it acted illegally

PARIS (Reuters) — France Telecom was placed under investigation on Friday over the company's alleged role in a wave of staff suicides, two days after its former chief executive was similarly targeted.

The telecommunications company, ex-CEO Didier Lombard and two senior executives all now face an investigation into tough management practices amounting to psychological harassment.

Besides alleged harassment, the management style at France Telecom is also being investigated for possibly hindering the functioning of the company and violating workers' hygiene and safety standards, a legal source said.

France Telecom was hit by a wave of employee suicides beginning in 2008 that took the lives of more than 30 workers in two years, including a man who stabbed himself in the stomach during a staff meeting and a woman who threw herself out of a window.

Blamed on workplace stress, the suicides continued in 2010, taking the lives of five workers in 10 days in one particularly difficult period.

The company, in which the French government holds a minority stake, denied it had acted illegally.

"France Telecom again denies having put into place a deliberate strategy aimed at causing suffering at work to create conditions that would lead to the departure of employees," it said in a statement.

It added that the company's acts "could have been interpreted badly" and acknowledged that in certain situations it had identified a link between the working environment and suicide.

Such investigations in France usually lead to trial and the crime of "moral harassment" can be punished with one year in prison and €15,000 (C$18,821) in fines.

Lombard, who stepped down amid criticism in 2010, was head of France Telecom when it was engulfed in controversy linked to the suicides of more than 30 employees in 2008 and 2009, a decade after its privatization.

Investigating magistrates have widened the case to include 80 cases, which include suicide attempts and nervous breakdowns.

Unions have said forced moves and impossible performance targets were partly behind the rash of suicides, but the company has said that rate was no higher than in the general population.

A February 2010 report written by government labour inspectors and viewed by Reuters said France Telecom had ignored warnings from doctors about the mental health of some employees.

It pointed to a restructuring plan — that sought to reduce headcount by 22,000 and put 10,000 other workers in new positions — as having a "pathological effect" on staff morale.

On Wednesday, Lombard's attorney, Jean Veil, called the accusation against his client "stunning," saying the former CEO was being accused of harassment against people he had never met.

Two other former senior executives at France Telecom have been summoned by investigating magistrates.

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