By Michael Johnson on 10.5.09 @ 6:08AM
One French woman jumped to her death from her office window. A few days later a man leapt off a highway overpass into the path of onrushing cars and was killed. And 22 others from the same company, France Telecom, have also committed suicide in various ways in the past 18 months, all apparently due to mismanagement and unbearable stress in the workplace.
Belatedly, the company has finally agreed that something must be amiss. Top executives last month postponed key elements of their drive for management modernization and promised a "more human" corporate culture by December.
France Telecom is just one example of the efforts under way in the French economy to bring modern management techniques to bear. Coming up in January will be the French Post Office, due to be converted to private company status. Postal workers are fighting it every step of the way, most recently with a nationwide referendum to play up how unpopular the scheme is.
The upheavals and their consequences have dominated the French media in recent weeks. A television debate a few days ago asked the question: "How soon will the suicides spread to the Post Office?"
France is undergoing a slow and painful adaptation to the realities of deregulation, privatization and international competition, exposing companies to the rigors of the free market -- sometimes with scant regard for employees' ability to keep pace.
Yet the two most frequently cited complaints about management innovations are routine in most international companies: rotation to new locations and annual performance reviews. Both are alien practices in France. A psychiatrist wrote in the press recently that his patients from France Telecom have also suffered from "lack of appreciation by their superiors, affronts to their dignity, and an excessive emphasis on productivity and profitability".