Monday, October 5, 2009

When what happens at work becomes a life and death affair

France Telecom’s deputy CEO resigned yesterday after considerable criticism of the company over its handling of a spate of suicides by its employees.

There has been a worrying number of suicides by employees in France Telecom. More than 20 of them over the last 18 months. While suicides are often triggered by a complex set of issues, work related stress seems to have been a major cause of them.

Its an incredibly sad story , but a reflection of the modern day work environment. France Telecom has been brutally restructuring. Some 20,000 people have lost their jobs in the last three years. Sudden staff transfers from one place to another seems to have been regular. The management culture also does not seem to have been supportive.

Painful decisions involving the staff have become inevitable in modern day business. In the sanitized environment of the boardroom, the decision appears logical. Tough choices have to be made. The staff affected become a faceless mass and often just a number. But, on the ground, each and every individual affected is a human being. With a warm heart beating. These decisions made thousands of miles away and which the individual affected can barely understand the logic of, have enormous impacts on the lives of people and their families. Unfortunately, for a few, like what has happened in France Telecom, it ends in a suicide.

There is a huge need for support for people being affected by the turmoils in the business world. Companies have an obligation to help their people by arranging for support. Tough decisions are probably unavoidable, but the least a company can do is to offer support, help and advice – not the standard rubbish companies do to fulfill the minimum statutory obligations. Sending a termination notice by email, must be made an offence punishable by imprisonment. Support and help groups are probably needed manifold to be able to stand by pained souls in their hour of need. If we are to call ourselves a civilized society, that is.

Imagine this scene at a meeting in one of France Telecom’s offices last month. In a management meeting, in full view of his colleagues, a man in his 50s stabbed himself. Fortunately he was immediately rushed to hospital and survived. But what must be driving a normal man to do something like this ?

Managers of the world, think about this. Next time painful decisions are made affecting people, remember this incident. Your hard decision may be inevitable, but can you do it in the softest manner possible. Or do you want to have blood on your hands ?