French Company’s Restructuring and Impossible Standards Lead to Suicide; Leaders Held Responsible, Criminally

American Labor Laws are generally not as progressive as many western European countries.  For the most part, employers are not held criminally liable for corporate acts taken against employees.  However, we spoke earlier in 2019 about how the state of Minnesota has taken steps to criminalize wage theft from employees by company leaders.  Therefore, it appears the tide is changing to protect employees against the deliberate wrongful actions by employers. 

In France, prosecutors have gone a step further by charging and convicting the company’s former CEO, deputy director, and Human Resources Director of telecom company Orange, following the numerous suicides linked to massive restructuring and employer efforts to purge employee ranks since the mid-2000s. 

While the former CEO of the company was at the helm, the company cut more than 20,000 jobs in effort to restructure the company.  At the time, employees were civil servants, and could not be outright fired due to strong employment contracts.  Therefore, the CEO implemented a program to worsen work conditions for employees in order to expedite employee departures.  The CEO reportedly informed his senior managers that he would get employees out “through the window or through the door.” 

As part of the its tactics on making life worse for incumbent employees, the company implemented forced moves for employees, reassigned employees to inappropriate roles and created unobtainable performance targets.  Between 2008 and 2009, 35 employees committed suicide, with many writing notes indicating the company was the only cause for their decision.  The company was warned by physicians in 2010 that the moves it made created severe anxiety amongst its employees.  Despite that, the company maintained its aggressive culling posture until the CEO left in 2010. 

In the United States, employers cannot currently be punished criminally for corporate movements to purge ranks of unwanted employees.  There are, however, civil punishments for companies whose behavior reaches an outrageous level.  Employers can be held liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress.  And while most lawyers will tell you it takes a great amount of negative treatment in order for a company to reach the minimum required for such a claim, it is possible, and the damages can be significant. 

All organizations need to be efficient and lean in the pursuit of success.  However, employers need to be mindful of the impact efforts to reach peak efficiency can have on employee morale and overall well-being.  If you or your organization are looking for ways to improve efficiency, or are looking for an analysis of the way you approach your human resources cost-cutting measures, contact the Wiley Law Office, for advice that works.