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Suicides at France Telecom

September 30, 2009










24 employees of France Telecom, the third largest telecom company in Europe, have committed suicide since February 2008. The last person to die was a 51 year old employee who jumped today from a bridge in the Alps region. Many victims, including the last one, have pointed to the despair brought about by the constant restructuring of the company resulting from its transition from public service, government enterprise to publicly-listed, for-profit entity. This has brought calls from the unions for the resignation of Didier Lombard, France Telecom’s CEO and has generated passionate comments from many politicians, including the  country’s President Nicolas Sarkozy.

It is at best adventurous to offer a point of view on as delicate a topic as the death of a large number of people belonging to the same firm. But as a “foreigner” spending a lot of time dealing with transformational issues impacting large French organizations, let me point out a few differences in how change is handled in France compared to the rest of the world (and particularly with the US, where I reside).

French managers are cartesian and technical, sometimes technocratic, when it comes to matters of work. Their schooling is in analytical optimization  and process design. Middle managers tend to emulate the thinking process of their senior leaders, who are quintessentially left-brained, shaped by their schooling at the leading engineering and administrative schools of the country (Polytechnique, Ecole Nationale d’Administration or ENA). Leadership myths are about the brilliance of senior leaders asking difficult questions about a particular number in the middle of a giant spreadsheet and destroying a presenter’s credibility by pushing him to recognize he cannot explain how this particular number was arrived at. I was for example asked a week ago by a senior leader running the distribution arm of a large French electronics company why the employee utilization curve “starts behaving asymptotically when approaching infinity” , when the real purpose of the discussion should have been to discuss why the customers’ and the employees’ experience inside the stores of this company were so abysmal. Maybe French managers are indeed guilty of asking the question: “we know it works in practice, but does it work in theory?”

Organizations in most other countries have developed a behavioral or change management view of business, which supplements the analytical approach. Co-creation is arguably the most advanced form of  this human-centric view of corporate transformation, but most firms that have had to restructure in the last 20 years have done so using some form of change management process, paying great attention to the human dislocation that change inevitably produces and involving people in the design of the new order. Strangely, France has sat out this major development in business thinking near completely. When I suggest to my French clients some kind of involvement of the people  being changed, I frequently find my suggested approach characterized as “American” or ”psy” – which means I’m a shrink masquerading as a professor or consultant. “But we need short-term results”, I’m often told, implying that involving people is a massive detour away from the true objective. I even had to learn a new word in my mother tongue: “angélisme”. When applied to change, “angélisme” suggests that I view employees as angel-like creatures willing to participate in the transformation of their own work, rather than as the tough birds requiring “reclassement” that they are.

I unfortunately cannot offer a prescription for how to stop suicides at France Telecom. But maybe watching what other countries have done in change management over the last twenty years – maybe even including the reputedly ultra-capitalistic United States — might help.

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