A Lesson from France Telecom

To begin, the company faces serious challenges. The telecom sector is ferociously competitive with many players jumping on any opportunity for even the smallest edge. The technology constantly evolves to the delight of retail customers who expect the highest level of reliability: today’s consumers require constant connection with one another. Maintaining seamless infrastructure is a tough job. And a transition from a public organization to a private company shifts culture on a grand scale. Remaining relevant requires the company to shift accordingly, turning pressures into opportunities.

Great leadership reacts to keep the company successful while helping employees cope with transitions. It offers training to keep employees’ skills current. It anticipates the strains implicit in revamping jobs, including those requiring relocation, and especially those requiring termination. This level of change leadership is demanding. Thorough, responsive change leadership requires a serious investment of high level talent, time, and money to address the strains from a volatile environment. The company responds on the organizational level to environmental strains.

This response seems appropriate, but it’s not the only option. An alternative passes the strain to employees. Rather than take the entire hit at the company level, the company responds to shift a major part of the strain to individual employees.

The reports from employees, as described in Sarah Sachs’s Globe and Mail article, available here, reflect the impact of those strains. The most dramatic response has been suicide by 25 employees within the past two years; others have injured themselves seriously. One strategy management used to buffer the company from these extreme employee actions has been denying any connection between suicide and management practices. They argued the employee suicide rate equaled that of the general public although it appears to be 3 times the 17 suicides/100,000 rate that the World Health Organization reports for France view chart data here.

It turned out that management’s buffer didn’t hold.

The size of the company along with the intensity of the employee reaction got the attention of government. Suicides from a large number of employees of a former public organization create strain for government that responded by insisting management get out of their offices and communicate with their employees. That is, the government used its clout to require management to stop transferring the strain to employees. Specifically, management conducted an employee survey and suspended transfers for the moment.

Initially, the company transferred strain from the environment the employees. Management buffered itself from employees’ response to that strain. The government, feeling strain from employees’ response, required management to address that strain.

Strain is real. It occurs on global, community, workgroup, and personal levels. It’s difficult for individuals to carry the strain of larger system events. A critical role of change leadership is actively addressing larger strains.

Have you witnessed company strain transferred to individuals?

What leadership actions help employees cope with large scale transitions?

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