Lessons from tragedies at France Télécom
Adaptive change, responsible leadership, and the well-being of workers
In the period 2008–2009, a dramatic series of suicides took place at France Télécom. Over a period of 18 months, 23 France Télécom employees took their lives – some did so on company premises; others left behind notes explicitly blaming work-related stress or management decisions for their extreme actions. These shocking events attracted the attention of the French government in addition to significant domestic and international media attention.
ESMT’s Ulf Schäfer and Konstantin Korotov have recently published the case study “Suicides at France Télécom,” which provides a rich basis for students and executive education participants to discuss a range of complex issues concerning corporate culture, human resources management practices, adaptive change, and responsible leadership. According to Ulf Schäfer, “This case forces students to think deeply about their responsibilities as organizational leaders for creating healthy work cultures and to confront the impact that their decisions can have on people’s lives.”
France Télécom had been a state-owned company until it was privatized and floated on the Paris Bourse in 1998. In the years following these moves to privatization, the company shed some 40,000 jobs in its effort to become a more efficient and competitive organization. Many telecom companies across Europe were also going through similar processes of denationalization at this time. In 2006, when management at the French telecoms company embarked on a major restructuring program to become a leaner organization, it seems that the process acted as a catalyst for the subsequent spate of suicides.
The case has been written to document the dramatic developments at France Télécom and to present the extensive and controversial debates of different interest groups. As compared to many other available examples and cases dealing with responsible leadership, this case is unique in that it touches upon real human tragedy and the possible inadequate capacity of modern organizations to work with vulnerable human beings. The case provides an opportunity to equip participants – as current and future leaders – with material on work-related factors triggering stress and guidelines for promoting mental health at the workplace. “Current and future organizational leaders cannot shy away from considering how unnecessary suffering and potential human loss can be reduced in the modern stress-laden business life,” says Korotov. Most importantly, it reinforces the human implications of decision making, that is, leaders are as much responsible for the health of their workers as they are for a healthy bottom line.
The ESMT case study refrains from providing a set of solutions or truths. Korotov explains, “Students who are confronted with this case find it really hits them in the stomach. It causes them to reevaluate their beliefs around what it means to be a leader and to question their readiness to lead.” The case study can also be used to discuss practical ethical issues such as role relativism, moral disengagement, and responsibility without intent. Schäfer adds, “Business leaders better understand that the idea according to which ‘responsibility presumes both choice and intent’ is not necessarily part of our human psyche, nor of our human culture. Upon accepting to take over leadership responsibility, we are in fact held responsible for negative consequences; regardless of whether they are under our control, and intended or not.”