Categories: Crisis management / CSR reality check / History of PR

22 September 2009


France Telecom: avoiding suicide?

France Telecom has been getting unwelcome attention. It stands accused of driving 24 of its workers to suicide over an eighteen-month period. Rather than fight its corner, the company seems to prefer the old bad PR strategy: “apologise, reform and move on”. Why so?

Some of the details are startling. A man stabbed himself in the stomach during a staff meeting (he survived) and a woman threw herself out of a fourth floor window (she died). On Bastille Day, Michel Deparis, a 53-year-old France Telecom employee, was found with a suicide note blaming “overwork” and “management by terror.”

The firm’s Chief Executive Didier Lombard responded by saying that he would do everything he could to “stop the infernal spiral” of suicides among workers at his former state-owned Telco. He warned, I think sensibly, that:

“The more you talk about this kind of thing, the more you put it into the heads of anyone who is psychologically unstable.”

But he has been forced to talk about the issue because it has become politicised. Last week Lombard was ordered to account for the suicides in person to Xavier Darcos, the French labour minister, whose government is also a major shareholder in the firm. The French media has given the story a sensational outing and blamed France Telecom.

However, not everybody is convinced that the firm is responsible. Oliver Barberot, France Telecom’s head of human relations, told the French satirical weekly newspaper Le Canard enchaîné:

“It’s not that dramatic, I have seen worse. The numbers of suicides are not even going up. In 2000 there were 28 and in 2002 there were 29.”

Moreover, the suicide rate among France Telecom’s 102, 000 employees is no higher than the national average: 16.3 per 100,000 inhabitants, and in the most vulnerable group, men aged between 45 and 49, 41.6 per 100,000. And it happens that the median age of the firm’s employees is approaching 50. Lombard, however, has not put this hard-headed rational rebuttal at the heart of his PR response.

Regardless of the facts, there’s a more powerful narrative at play. It is one we know well. Since it was semi-privatised in 1996, France Telecom has shed almost 60, 000 workers. For those that remained life has got tough, as Christopher Caldwell usefully described in this weekend’s FT:

“France Telecom set targets for early retirement. It reassigned people to tasks other than the ones they had been trained for (engineers-turned-cellphone-salesmen is the image in the French press). These job switches were often accompanied by mobilités professionnelles: employees were reassigned to work far from their homes. Maybe to France Telecom, this was a way of keeping in meaningful work people whom the new economy had made obsolescent. But to unions, it smacked of playing with workers’ minds until they cracked under pressure and left.”

After the bad publicity over the suicides, Lombard has suspended the mobilités professionnelles and employed more human relations staff and physicians specializing in occupational medicine. He’s also sent his heads of department on tour around France to investigate why their workers are so unhappy.

Perhaps, indeed, the redundant workers are statistically happier than the ones who kept their jobs? Who knows. But if so the unions have something to answer for.

Certainly, the attitude of the union hardly seems to be sustained by the facts. Patrice Diochet, the CFTC union’s national secretary, says,”There is no humanity anymore, no neighborliness. Only business counts.” (If that were true more workers would have been sacked than have been, and France Telecom would be robustly defending its business against emotional blackmail).

But is either side – unions or management – responsible for the suicides? I think not. As Caldwell points out:

“There is always a temptation to interpret suicides ideologically. During the wave of suicide bombings in the Palestinian territories earlier this decade, pundits were quick to diagnose “despair” among the men who blew themselves up. Are we to assume the recent fall in suicide bombings means a decrease in despair? A perennial staple of American anti-socialist rhetoric is to ask why, if socialism is so great, Sweden has the highest suicide rate in the world. (It doesn’t, actually, and never did.)”

That’s the point. Suicide is deeply personal. Its causes are difficult to fathom. The argument still rages, for instance, as to whether psychoanalyst Anna Freud contributed to Marilyn Monroe’s suicide (as Adam Curtis suggested in The Century of the Self) and to that of one of the Burlingham children, who killed himself in Anna’s house, after a life-time’s experimental therapy designed to produce a happy balanced individual, instead of the suicidal drunk he became.

I’m not sure that in the current climate one can criticize France Telecom for taking the line of least resistance. Third parties – such as me – are setting the record straight in a way which the firm could not (at least not without appearing hard-hearted).

Maybe the pseudo-firm (part state-owned, highly politicised, national icon and all that) cannot be blunt. Perhaps, anyway, it is employing dark-arts third party strategies to out-source the messaging. Maybe it has some bad practices it would rather wrap up in this suicide-bundle and get shot-of in one fell swoop (or grovel).

This is France, after all. Guessing what is going on is an art form that’s beyond most foreigners. But one’s heart does sink when one sees a big company getting into such an emotional muddle with its PR.

2 responses to “France Telecom: avoiding suicide?”

  1. Heather Yaxley says:

    Paul – I’m not sure that such scenarios are times when presenting “facts” and being defensive or agressive in response is appropriate. Whenever there are emotional aspects in a story, countering these with facts is unlikely to be an effective PR strategy. You can only help educate the media once the heat of a crisis scenario has abated – or better still, before an issue becomes a crisis.

    Of course there are likely to be other factors at play – even if the incidence of suicide is an issue within France Telecom. Once an organisation is in the public arena in relation to an issue, an association will be made in peoples’ minds. Would it not be better to them to show some social responsibility and partner/co-orientate with some of the other parties here – government and unions, to look at the issue of suicide amongst men of this age.

    It will not be the exclusive issue of France Telecom, but they could be seen as being pro-active in addressing a societal matter.

    I don’t know if the French are more or less likely to commit suicide than any other nation, but my mum lives there and in her small village, we are aware of two men who have seen no other way out of their problems. This is a shocking and upsetting matter and I get a sense that the problems of middle aged men (especially in relation to financial worries) are not something that they feel able to get help with.

    I’m not saying this is the case in the incidents in France Telecom, but they could help turn a problem into social responsibility. At the least, could they not help support or set up the French equivalent of the Samaritans?

    My suggestion isn’t as a superficial “PR exercise”, but as a genuine way to show their role in the fabric of French society.