Welcome back and welcome to 2020! We’ve been on holiday hiatus but below is a new blog on a story that hit many media outlets just before the Christmas holiday on a workplace issue that took several years to resolve.
The story is about the French telecom company, now called Orange, and how its executives in the early 2000s devised a plan to try and force employees to quit so the company could recover from enormous losses at the company. The pressure was so bad on employees that more than 60 committed suicide. Because of that, a French court, just before the Christmas holiday, found the company and the executives who came up with the plan guilty of moral workplace harassment. Both the company and the executives were fined. The company had to pay a settlement to victims’ families, and, in addition, the executives received prison sentences. Some legal experts say this has opened a new door on the meaning of workplace harassment.
The pressure on employees started before the restructuring plan was implemented in 2006. The company was transitioning from a public company to private company and the changes created from that caused a great deal of discomfort for the entire staff. The downsizing plan just created an additional layer of misery and stress as employees faced horrible management behavior. Some would call it management by intimidation.
Some employees were given unobtainable quotas. Some were transferred multiple times to different locations. Others were given new jobs without having any skill for the jobs. And others experienced horrible treatment from their supervisors such as surveillance or needing permission to use restrooms.
This type of management style is unnecessary and, despite the French telecom incident occurred several years ago, some managers, unfortunately, continue to use this style. Let’s look at surveillance, which is one technique the telecom company used. Surveillance seems to be on the rise. As the use of technology has increased so have surveillance techniques. Measurement of employee productivity is much too common whether that be in an office or a warehouse. A supervisor can measure the number of keystrokes an employee does during a specific time frame to determine productivity. We’ve heard reports from employees afraid to use restrooms because of fear they were spending too much time away from the job. These types of methods, or style, only create more stressful environments for everybody. They do nothing for an organization’s long term stability. Creating a more positive environment can greatly improve both productivity and longevity for a company. We have recently blogged about other sources confirming the need for new workplace practices to improve the culture.
The Boston Fed is one of those sources. They continue to publish articles on their website to explain the importance and need for quality jobs. Not only do they say wages need to go up but they also say other things are needed for a quality job. Those other things include a consistent schedule, health benefits, sick pay and a safe work environment. It helps to create a culture where employees feel valued and have opportunity to learn new skills and grow their career. In addition, the Boston Fed says workers must have a voice and be made to feel part of the workplace. Most of these things were missing from the French telecom. They may have been paid decent wages and benefits but the overall climate was more Us-vs-Them in which the executives created a huge division between themselves and the rest of the workforce. Quality jobs, the Boston Fed says, help to grow the overall economy. Without them, we all will be hurting.
Another source we’ve written about is the Society for Human Resource Management. They say we’re at a critical point now for employee inclusion because turnover costs are in the billions of dollars and are at an all-time high. If these costs are not better controlled, organizations cannot maintain themselves or grow which again hurts all of us. Workers are now demanding workplace cultures like that at the French telecom company need to stop, because if they don’t, workers, SHRM says, will continue to search for new employment until they find one that is more suitable. In the end, that hurts the bottom line not just because of turnover costs but the ability to provide services or products for customers.
And we now have a court decision that says enough is enough. Managers must understand the importance of developing a culture that will pay enormous gains for them. Managers need to be real leaders and LISTEN to employees as well as to act on employee ideas and concerns. Environments need to be created that allow for shared leadership with employees or unions. Investment in employees also needs to happen instead of tearing employees down which appeared to be common at the French telecom. Employees need to be trusted and treated with respect and dignity. They need to be allowed to make decisions as they do their everyday work. In addition, workplaces must be flexible to better meet customer needs and to create that environment so it can adapt better to outside forces and financial concerns instead of losing billions of dollars.
While it’s easy to focus only on management but it’s not just management that has a responsibility to make a positive work culture. Unions have a responsibility, too, in making sure working conditions are satisfactory and the negotiated contract is enforced. Union representatives need to also LISTEN. While we don’t know how much the French union at the telecom company did for their members, we do know several employees committed suicide before the union filed a lawsuit. As written above, the culture was already bad before executives started implementing their horrible downsizing plan.
Workplace partnerships need to be started long before bad situations occur. If not, it can be too late. Suicides may not happen but workplaces can close and people can lose their job. Working together can help look at problems before significant financial loss happens or people feel like they’re being forced out. We’ve blogged about partnerships created that eliminated the costs associated with safety issues that kept one company open or the partnership that looked at voluntary furlough plans to help stem personnel losses that neither side wanted. With both of those examples, it took a year before benefits could be realized.
The French telecom story is a horrible story. Not all workplace stories are as horrific as that one. Nobody won in that story. The workers definitely did not. The executives who thought they were saving a company didn’t. And while the company did survive, it’s reputation is tarnished when it comes to workplace culture.
Everybody wins with workplace partnerships. If the central bank of the U. S. says it’s time to change, a management professional organization also says it and now a court system says it, it must be time to act. We’re starting a new decade. Let’s get going!