CEO's famous last words at France Telecom

Keep the Human Heart in Your Message

Without heart, everything may be lost. That hard lesson about messaging comes from the story of France Telecom and the famous last words of its CEO Didier Lombard.

When consumers shifted to mobile phones, France Telecom went through gut-wrenching organization changes.

Under its change program, the company laid off 30,000 employees. And it made 50,000 employees change jobs or work locations.

This painful process became much worse as the company completely lost touch with its employees.

The workplace changes “created a sense of constant upheaval and insecurity,” said Sébastien Crozier, head of a union at France Telecom. “People were put under unbearable pressure. Thousands were forced to move geographically or to take on new job functions. They couldn’t take it.

“The whole strategy was to reduce the number of employees. It was an organized and planned method to make employees’ lives difficult so that they would resign,” Crozier added.

France Telecom logoEmployees lost heart. Since they feared losing retirement benefits, many tried to hold on – even when their skills weren’t needed or they didn’t have enough work to do.

The excessive workplace pressure led to dozens of employee suicides. During 2008 and 2009, 35 France Telecom employees killed themselves. Another 12 attempted suicide but failed.

At the end of a work day, a 32-year-old woman emailed her father a suicide note and threw herself out of her office window.

A back-office employee repeatedly stabbed himself in the stomach after he was informed of a transfer.

A 51-year-old man hurled himself off a bridge in the Alps, leaving behind a suicide note.

One employee said “management by terror” had led him to take his life, writing, “I am committing suicide because of my work at France Telecom. That’s the only reason.”

When news of a suicide plague became public, Lombard coldly dismissed it. His famous last words: a “copycat suicide culture” had led to a suicide “fad.”

He asserted that the suicides were motivated by personal, not professional, reasons. He maintained that the company’s suicide rate was in line with the suicide rate for France.

Yet the public outcry grew.

In October 2009 France Telecom (now called Orange) ousted its #2 executive, Louis-Pierre Wenes, nicknamed “cost-killer.” He had been directly in charge of France Telecom’s change program.

While employee unions welcomed his ouster, they continued to demand a change in management style.

Eventually, CEO Lombard agreed to pause the change program and bring counsellors into the workplace. By then, France Telecom’s reputation with employees, customers and investors had been shredded.

As a result, Lombard stepped down from the CEO post in February 2010. He said he had “made mistakes, which has increased the stress on my employees.”

The Telegraph reported: “Asked if he had any regrets, the company boss pointed to the suicides, saying: ‘Of course, above all, not being able to avoid the social crisis. I should certainly have acted earlier,’ he said, adding that steps the company took in October to boost morale should probably have been implemented two months earlier.”

But Lombard’s story doesn’t end there. In 2012, French prosecutors placed Lombard and 2 lieutenants under formal investigation for “psychological harassment” of employees.

Unfortunately, Lombard never seemed to grasp exactly what he’d done wrong — failing to recognize a human tragedy in the making, and responding to it without heart.

In his July 2012 editorial for Le Monde, he defended himself, “The plans put in place by France Telecom were never intended to hurt the employees. On the contrary, the plans were destined to save the company and its workforce.

“I am conscious of the fact that the company’s upheaval may have caused problems … But I absolutely reject that these plans, which were vital to France Telecom’s survival, were the direct cause of these human tragedies.”

Ouch. Not exactly a guy anyone would want to work for.

Here’s what Lombard could have and should have said when news of the employee suicides emerged: “Every employee matters. Even one suicide is too many.

“I’m sorry to see this. I will take actions immediately to address the concerns of our employees.”

Instead, Lombard’s message lost its human heart, led to his famous last words – and ended his career.

Getting your CEO’s message right is crucial. Here’s how BP CEO Tony Hayward ended his career with the wrong words. And how two words from Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson cost him $20 million.