French telecom company Orange and its former CEO were found guilty on Friday of “institutional moral harassment” that the court said contributed to a spate of suicides among employees.
In a landmark ruling, the Paris court sentenced the former CEO, Didier Lombard, to a year in prison, with eight months suspended, and fined Orange (FNCTF) €75,000 ($83,200). Lombard was also ordered to pay a €15,000 ($16,600) fine. He is appealing the judgment, according to media reports. His lawyer declined to comment.
Two other former executives were found guilty of the same charge. They were handed the same jail terms and fines as Lombard. Another four were charged with “complicity in psychological harassment” and given four month suspended jail sentences with fines of €5,000 ($5,500) each.
Orange will not appeal the ruling, according to a statement on its website.
The company is the first of its size in France to be tried for psychological harassment, opening the door for future cases.
Prosecutors opened an investigation into the suicides at Orange, formerly France Telecom, in 2009. The trial began in May 2019.
The suicides coincided with a major restructuring of the company that followed a government bailout. Directed by Lombard, the overhaul aimed to reduce its workforce by 22,000 over three years.
Prosecutors alleged there was a “corporate strategy” to create an “anxiety-inducing work environment” that destabilized employees and undermined their dignity.
Orange said on Friday that an evaluation and compensation committee, established in October, has been tasked with finding “acceptable compensation solutions” for affected individuals who come forward.
“Orange has undertaken a vast social transformation project and has implemented measures aimed at preventing workplace suffering and psychosocial risks at a level that is unprecedented among large French companies,” it said.
The labor union that represents Orange workers said that 19 workers committed suicide between 2007 and 2010. Another 12 employees attempted suicide during that time.
The union accused management of using “particularly violent methods of institutionalized harassment” to intimidate employees into leaving.
Sylvie Topaloff, a lawyer who represented Orange employees, told CNN Business that her clients were “very satisfied” with the ruling.
“We feel that this judgment does justice to the victims and to the unions who initiated this harassment complaint,” she said.
— Antoine Crouin contributed to this article.