Former France Telecom chief executive Didier Lombard has been indicted by a court in Paris over allegations that he led a corporate culture of bullying and harassment that resulted in the suicide of at least 30 employees.
Lombard, who ran the company between 2005 and 2010, was placed under formal investigation by the French authorities on Wednesday and bailed for €100,000 ($125,000).
The allegations stem back to a year two-year period when 35 employees killed themselves. While that number is below the national average for a company of 165,000 employees, critics have pinpointed Lombard’s management culture and decisions as one of the reasons for the deaths — and in particular on his so-called “NEXT” program, an efficiency drive and restructuring that cut more than 22,000 jobs over a short time and made managers change jobs every three years.
Many of those who died left notes blaming pressure at work for their actions.
Pressure from unions and politicians meant that Lombard was forced to step down from his job earlier than expected, and his successor rapidly ended the NEXT program.
But while critics say that his actions created a bullying culture that left many employees feeling desperate and depressed, Lombard — who has called the affair a “social crisis” — took to the pages of Le Monde to defend himself.
In an article published on Wednesday, he argued that while the deaths were a “tragedy” they were not closely linked to the cutbacks, which were necessary for the health of the business:
I realize that upheavals in the company could cause shocks or disturbances. But I strongly doubt that these essential plans for the survival of the company were the cause of these human tragedies.
Lombard’s lawyers, meanwhile, said it was a “stunning accusation” to be investigated over the deaths of people he never met.
If found guilty of harassment, Lombard faces up to a year in prison and a fine of €15,000.
Photograph of Didier Lombard used under Creative Commons license courtesy of World Economic Forum