A French court on Friday found the former CEO and other executives at telecom company Orange guilty of "institutional harassment" after theduring a vast corporate restructuring. In the first ruling of its kind against a blue-chip French company, presiding judge Cecile Louis-Loyant said managers used "forbidden" methods to create "a climate of anxiety" in reaching the goal of cutting one in five jobs -- 22,000 in total -- within three years.
Thirty-five employees at the former state monopoly took their own lives in 2008 and 2009. The deaths sparked demands for action against "moral harassment" by bosses focusing ruthlessly on the bottom line at the expense of employees' well-being.
Ex-chief Didier Lombard was given a one-year prison sentence, with eight months suspended, and the maximum fine of 15,000 euros ($16,700).
His former deputy Louis-Pierre Wenes and human resources director Olivier Barberot received the same sentence, while France Telecom itself, since rebranded as Orange, was ordered to pay 75,000 euros.
Four other executives charged with "complicity in moral harassment" were given four-month suspended sentences and 5,000 euro fines.
The defendents were also ordered to pay a combined three million euros to the plaintiffs as well as victims' families.
Lombard's lawyer, Jean Veil, said he and the others would appeal the ruling, calling it "total misreading of the law."
During the trial in July, Lombard denied that management bore any responsibility for the deaths, despite having told managers in 2006 that he would "get people to leave one way or another, either through the window or the door".
"The transformations a business has to go through aren't pleasant, that's just the way it is, there's nothing I could have done," he told the court.
The victims' families and unions accused Orange of systematic psychological abuse aimed at pushing out people at its nearly 23,000 sites across the country.
Evidence presented to the court painted a picture of intimidation: workers suddenly ordered to change the nature or location of their job, threats of pay cuts, and repeated emails encouraging people to leave in order to meet the job cuts goal.
Some of the victims, including one who jumped out of a fifth-floor window in front of her colleagues, left notes expressing deep unhappiness at work.
In July 2009, a 51-year-old technician from Marseille killed himself, leaving a letter accusing bosses of "management by terror."
The criminal investigation focused on the cases of 39 employees, including 19 of those who killed themselves, 12 who tried to, and eight who suffered from acute depression or were signed off sick.
"This is a major victory," Sebastien Crozier of the CFE-CGC union said after the ruling.
Patrick Ackerman of SUD, the first union to lodge a complaint against France Telecom, said the judgment "allows something to be built that will challenge policies on management methods" in the future, while also better characterising workplace harassment.
But "we must also review prevention policy in the light of the France Telecom case, to ask ourselves how this could have been possible."
Relatives of the victims also welcomed the ruling, including Raphael Louvradoux, whose father set himself on fire in the parking lot of an Orange site.
"The other Didier Lombards at other companies, whether public or private, need to know that if they keep putting in place managerial policies that push people into depression or suicide, we will come and find you," he said.