France Telecom change program results in 24 suicides

A quick look at privatization news from France:

PARIS, Oct 7 (Reuters) – France Telecom (FTE.PA) on Wednesday began a second day of negotiations with unions on ways to reduce workplace stress blamed by labour leaders for a spate of suicides at Europe’s third biggest telecoms company.

The talks, which are expected to continue for several weeks, are part of France Telecom’s effort to calm the political firestorm surrounding the deaths of 24 workers in the past 18 months.

As sporadic strikes continued at sites across France, Labour unions said management was more conciliatory on the first day of talks, although points of contention remained, such as performance reviews and controls on call centre workers.

…The government, which is France Telecom’s biggest shareholder with 27 percent of shares, has also been closely involved in trying to manage the fallout from the suicides.

To better understand workers’ concerns, “all employees will receive a questionnaire on stress in the workplace” on October 19, said Lombard.

Christian Mathorel, a CGT union representative, was not convinced that management would deliver on its pledges. CGT wants the company to stop monitoring employees’ calls, measuring individual performance and giving managers headcount reduction targets.

“We think the employees are still in danger,” he said. “If we don’t address the fundamental causes behind these dramatic incidents, we will be negotiating in fear of new suicides.”

As one with experience in both managing European employees and working in various roles in call centers, this is an interesting development.  24 suicides in a year and a half at one company’s call center is alarming.  Yet, monitoring calls, measuring performance, and reducing headcount are accepted practices in call centers from Memphis to Mumbai; what caused such a reaction at France Telecom?

My guess:  a change program executed with insufficient employee engagement and up-front data gathering, analysis, and diagnosis.  That’s only a guess, and I’m certain no one could have predicted suicides–it would take a real tyrant to go ahead with that knowledge–but this situation smacks of front-end ignorance of points of resistance.  Did this have to happen?  Probably not.

By the way, good luck with that questionnaire.

5 responses to “France Telecom change program results in 24 suicides

  1. Joseph,
    The NYT article on the resignation of FTE’s CEO didn’t mention the questionnaire… but it sure strikes me as a clumsy way to get data and an evey worse way to treat (what seem to be) traumatized employees. This seems like an opporuntity, instead, for a series of “fireside chats’ or roundtables, where people could really share how the *feel* and where managers could listen (or just seem to listen).
    I was also surprised by the point that there have been as many suicides on a per capita basis at other French organizations, but no insight about why France Telecom alone has take the reputation hit. Any ideas?

    , maybe even

    • That was interesting to me but not surprising. When I was working in several countries in Europe, I noticed what I perceived as a high rate of people taking “stress leave” (quotes intended to denote the literal term rather than sarcasm). This isn’t statistically valid, but anecdotally I noticed it more in northern European countries than in the south. The northern European countries tended to have more of a social safety net and a culture of job security. As the change program was rating individual performance and reducing workforce (among other priorities), the employee wellness outcomes seemed similar if not as extreme. I recall one person I thought might be at risk of doing damage to himself or others, but that person’s spouse was going through a significant health issue at the same time as the changes at work.

  2. p.s. trying to answer my own question, NPR says:

    “Workplace lawyer Christophe Mesnooh says they may be linked to France Telecom’s specific situation.

    “Because of France Telecom’s change in status from a public company to a private firm subject to free-market forces, the management had the heavy task of explaining this new world to its employees,” Mesnooh says. “And the irony is that the company has communicated much better with the market and its competitors than with its own employees.”

    As the debate rages whether the suicides were provoked by vicious globalization, the company’s cynical management, or mollycoddled state workers being made to face up to reality, France Telecom seems to be doing its utmost to avoid another one. One trade union has suggested the government levy a suicide tax on companies to make sure they maintain a decent work environment. ”

    This sounds like a challenge for ….PublicOrgTheory!

  3. I would hope there is more in depth study of each individual suicide going on to identify more specific causes. While I agree a downsizing/change program that targeted specific individuals could be a trigger, solving the problem of a bloated workforce by random cuts could have the same effect.

    • Hi Fred,

      I would hope so as well, and I understand that is the intention. NPR had a good treatment of the story that got deeper into the antecedents and consequences of the program, part of which apparently did involve a certain degree of randomness in the cuts. I have seen similar, though less severe, dynamics in other countries during public-to-private transitions, and they appear to follow a handful of patterns.

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