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After a distraught 51-year-old father of two climbed onto a bridge railing in Southern France and leapt to his death, the story of his suicide sent shockwaves throughout the world and threatened to shake up one of the largest employers in France.
The suicide of Jean-Paul Rouannet, a longtime employee with France Telecom, normally would be reported only by local media outlets in France. However, this story grabbed international attention because Rouannet is reportedly the 24th employee of the French telecommunications giant to commit suicide since February 2008. He left behind a note blaming stress at the workplace for his suicide.
Other France Telecom employees have left similar suicide notes. Their suicide attempts have been equally shocking, too. One worker stabbed himself in the stomach with a letter opener during a staff meeting (he survived), and a female manager jumped to her death from her fifth-floor office window.
Some suicide experts have said that the number of suicides at France Telecom is not statistically aberrant and is slightly less than France’s national suicide rate of 26.4 suicides per 100,000 people (according to statistics from the World Health Organization). France Telecom has 100,000 employees with 24 suicides over a 19-month period (13 other employees survived their suicide attempts during the same time frame). Possibly more shocking, however, is that 24 suicides is not a record for the company. In 2002, 29 employees reportedly killed themselves.
Even if it’s statistically consistent with the national average, the problem, others point out, is that these suicides are happening within one organization and that the reasons given by the workers in notes and statements from survivors are remarkably consistent. Most said that they could no longer handle the pressure and stress of the workplace.
For the past several years, France Telecom has been undergoing a massive restructuring project as it moves to compete with wireless and Internet telecommunications companies in France and Western Europe. Until the 1990s, the company was state-owned and had a virtual monopoly on the French telecommunications system.
However, privatization of the company and opening of the marketplace have left the one-time government corporation in intense competition for customers in the open marketplace. The French government still owns a 23 percent share of the company, and approximately 65 percent of the employees are identified as civil servants—making it virtually impossible for the company to fire or lay off these workers.
The result has been that many workers who had held jobs such as phone line installation and business service representatives have been reassigned to high-pressure call centers, where they are expected to answer customer inquiries and sell additional telecommunications and wireless services simultaneously. Before his death, Rouannet had been reassigned to a call center in Annecy, France, which had a reputation for high-pressure tactics.
On Sept. 15, 2009, two weeks before Rouannet’s suicide, France Telecom’s board of directors held an emergency meeting to discuss the situation. The board and Chairman and CEO Didier Lombard agreed to freeze worker transfers until the end of October 2009, establish an anonymous help line for troubled employees, and bolster psychological and human resource support.
In a written statement, Lombard said that France Telecom would “make every effort to ensure that a new social contract emerges following this period of negotiations and actions. December’s France Telecom will not be the France Telecom of today.”
Lombard visited the call center in Annecy on Sept. 29, 2009, and was booed by the workers and pelted with trash. The CEO returned to Paris and met on Sept. 30, 2009, with union leaders. France Telecom and the unions issued a statement after the meeting that the company was appointing a supervisor to monitor the restructuring of jobs and that the company’s management will consult with union officials before making internal job transfers.
Following Rouannet’s suicide, Lombard has been roundly criticized by politicians and union leaders, with many calling for his resignation. Lombard vowed to stay on the job and improve the working conditions at the company. Although France Telecom cut more than 22,000 jobs from 2006 to 2008, mostly through attrition and voluntary early retirements, pressure to cut more jobs lingers.
Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM Online.
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