Pot-au-feu

I’m not surprised by this:

The ex-boss of France Telecom and six other former executives have gone on trial in Paris, accused of moral harassment linked to a spate of suicides among employees.

Didier Lombard and his fellow defendants deny their tough restructuring measures were to blame for the subsequent loss of life.

The company, since renamed Orange, is also on trial for the same offence.

Thirty-five staff took their lives between 2008 and 2009.

Some of them left messages blaming France Telecom and its managers.

At the time, the newly privatised company was in the throes of a major reorganisation. Mr Lombard was trying to cut 22,000 jobs and retrain at least 10,000 workers.

Some employees were transferred away from their families or left behind when offices were moved, or assigned demeaning jobs.

The French management style – or what passes for one – consists of appointing the best students from the grandes écoles to the top management positions regardless of industry experience. While these individuals are undoubtedly very bright, they often lack the emotional intelligence which genuine leaders have in abundance. They set up a top-down command-and-obey organisation in which absolute obedience from subordinates is demanded, or their careers abruptly ended. Promotion and advancement is based on the degree to which an individual has not fallen foul of the boss. It is probably as close to an Asian power model as can be found in Europe.

The problem is the French are not Asians, and the stress this puts on employees is immense. During France’s golden era of industrialisation this probably didn’t matter as the organisations were doing well, but as globalisation is forcing companies to adapt or die, French management has been found wanting time and again. Total, for example, is a company with operations in 131 countries yet retains French as its official working language for the convenience of those in headquarters and to preserve an outdated model of cultural identity. French management, in parallel with their political counterparts who are drawn from the same schools and with whom swapping positions is commonplace (see here again), are proving incapable of doing the job which is assigned to them. Their response is to take it out on the employees.

One might argue that France Telecom needed to lay those workers off, but they might have witnessed a decade of blithering managerial incompetence prior to that decision, making retrenchment a bitter pill to swallow. And if you’ve hung around French companies as long as I have, you’ll know these suicides don’t just happen in times of redundancies; we used to hear the stories filtering down at my last place of work. I also know at least one case where a complaint of harcèlement moral was brought to HR concerning a manager, and their response was to do whatever was necessary to protect the management. I suspect this is commonplace; little wonder French unions still enjoy high membership rates.

I suspect as the large French companies come under increasing competitive pressure from globalisation, the failings of their managerial cadres are going to get more pronounced. Sadly, it will be the ordinary workers who pay the price.

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15 thoughts on “Pot-au-feu

  1. All true but it’s also true that there is a culture of subservience and sycophancy among the French which in its day allowed the entire country to be administered by fifity thousand Germans – and not just the military but all the support personnel associated with the occupation.

  2. On the other hand, you really, really really have to get away from shit management.

    Some people seek deeper integration with an organisation to increase their value, while others seek marketable skills to increase their value. The former is generally easier – learn the stupid etiquette of the organisation, talk about the right subjects etc.

    But the downside is that your value depends on the organisation, so people get very stressed when things turn bad because they can’t leave and get something else similar.

  3. Some people seek deeper integration with an organisation to increase their value, while others seek marketable skills to increase their value. The former is generally easier – learn the stupid etiquette of the organisation, talk about the right subjects etc.

    That’s an excellent observation, well put.

  4. The first thing I’d take away from this is there must be something seriously amiss in French culture for people to be topping themselves in these numbers over an issue as trivial as a job.
    Past that, I’d say there’s going to be nasty surprises for management/admin staff of all levels coming over the horizon, any time soon.
    The vast majority of all management is little more than distributed, rules based, data processing. The the vast majority of all managerial/admin work involves the processing nodes – the individual staff – communicating with each other. This is where the next wave of automation is going to sweep through. Strong AI is made for it. Companies that adopt it will sweep whole tiers of expensive employees aside & become more competitive. Those that cling to old practices will founder.

  5. I don’t know anything about French management. I will oberve, that based on n=1 I haven’t formed a positive impression of the willingness of French “workers” to do any actual work. My experience was that no fingers will be lifted until 8,942 intricately-detailed questions have been answered (no making a start and filling in the blanks as you go along), and that when said finger is lifted it is done to delegate as much of the actual work to other people as possible.

  6. I have some (limited) sympathy for the suits. France Telecom did need major restructuring and thanks to union power and French labour laws it was hard to impossible to do the restructuring in the quick but impersonal way you can in the US (and UK I think). Hence you try to get people to quit by making it unpleasant for them. Hence moving people to Brest from Paris etc.

  7. “…brought to HR concerning a manager, and their response was to do whatever was necessary to protect the management.”

    That’s pretty much true of any western country. The only caveat I would put is that less senior managers will be sacrificed to protect the more senior ones.

    As an example, when I started work a harassment case would not have been entertained unless it was blatant. Today in the #metoo era, senior managers are keen not to get blamed and will happily sacrifice more junior staff.

    HR are not there to help you – they are part of compliance

  8. “..little wonder French unions still enjoy high membership rates.”

    But, actually, they don’t. Outside certain public sector utilities, France has always been a bit of an outlier in the proportion of workers who are unionised.

    Everything else you say is spot on.

    I worked for a number of years in a Paris headquarted and run company; could never get my head round the fact that the French cadre seemed to believe that management was an intellectual exercise and that the more detached from empirical reality you pretended it was, the more you could behave like a philosopher king. Which is how they all saw themselves, of course.

  9. I also know at least one case where a complaint of harcèlement moral was brought to HR concerning a manager, and their response was to do whatever was necessary to protect the management

    This is their job (well, protecting the company interests, anyway). Anyone who believes HR is there to look after you is a fool – if they do, it’s only because employee lawsuits can be expensive.

  10. This is their job (well, protecting the company interests, anyway).

    Management interests and the company interests are rarely aligned, which is the entire problem. HR is there to protect the interests of the company, i.e. the shareholders but in a lot of places they simply act in the interests of the middle management. That is not a path to take if you wish to avoid lawsuits.

  11. in a lot of places they simply act in the interests of the middle management. That is not a path to take if you wish to avoid lawsuits.

    Sure it is. The middle management almost always controls more money than an individual employee, which means they can exhaust an abused employee’s ability to pay a lawyer and so the suit will be settled for peanuts. And no, senior management won’t fire the middle manager for abuse of corporate funds because if this has been going on long enough for lawsuits to happen, it’s a company culture problem and the middle manager almost certainly has enough dirt on senior management to be far too expensive to fire.

    If you work in any company large enough to have an HR department, it’s worth keeping in mind that HR is your enemy. Their job is to protect management from you, not the other way around.

  12. Hence you try to get people to quit by making it unpleasant for them.

    Interesting take. Never considered this as a consequence of strong employee-friendly legislation, but makes total sense.

  13. “Total, for example, is a company with operations in 131 countries yet retains French as its official working language for the convenience of those in headquarters and to preserve an outdated model of cultural identity.”

    It is said that in the late lamented Maersk Oil, when Danish employees had to submit a report to the Danish government, they would write the report in English and then translate it into Danish — because English was the working language of that Danish company. Of course, Maersk Oil is now late lamented, acquired by an English-language company.

    Perhaps those French managers at Total HQ are actually implementing their own job preservation scheme by using French as the internal working language for their international operations. It certainly is another impediment to any would-be international acquirer.

  14. @bis

    “something as trivial as a job”

    Indeed – think both you and I regard jobs as ultimately something disposable, if you don’t like what you’re doing or where you’re at or who you’re with then why not just go do something else? Indeed why not just work for yourself?

    Not everyone seems to think that way. But there are other jobs available. Other career paths and if necessary retraining opportunities (less so, I admit, for the old or infirm or intellectually challenged, or for those geographically concentrated in an area of industrial or general economic decline yet unable or unwilling, for whatever reason, to move away to brighter prospects). And failing that, a benefits system such that you’re most unlikely to starve or freeze to death in a west European country (not impossible, true, but where else in geography or history would you pick as a better place to be long-term unemployed?).

    A lot of people sadly seem to take their job or career or ambitions as part of their identity and it does a lot of harm to them psychologically when these get threatened. But to kill yourself over a rotten boss or the threat of job insecurity is a terrible waste of a life in a world with so many possibilities.

  15. “Total, for example, is a company with operations in 131 countries yet retains French as its official working language”

    Mindboggling; are majority shareholders French Gov’t and Gov’t offshoots (eg public sector pensions)?

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