The suicide of a France Telecom employee in August 2009 has resulted in the criminal prosecution for accidental manslaughter by the Besancon Prosecutor’s Office of both the employer and the individual manager of the area where the employee worked.
Under Article L.4121-1 of the French Labour Code, an employer has a statutory obligation to prevent occupational risks which may affect the health and safety of its employees. Furthermore, French law has established that the concept of ‘health’ covers not only physical but also mental health. If the employer had by its mismanagement or negligence killed the employee outright it could have been prosecuted. The intervening fact of suicide need not act as a bar to this if it can be shown beyond reasonable doubt that the employee’s mental distress (a) led him to kill himself and (b) was caused by the employer’s breach of duty. Nonetheless, the evidential hurdles a prosecutor would need to clear to establish the necessary chain of causation are very few and far between. If a number of employees in the same employer committed suicide, however, it could be imagined that those hurdles may become easier to surmount. As under English law, the prosecution of an individual manager implies a high degree of personal culpability for the employee’s state of health, rather than just holding the managerial responsability when the suicide occurred.
Practical implications – This case highlights the importance of employers having a robust risk management policy in place. The French Government has recently recommended that larger companies should enter into discussions with Trade Unions in respect of their responsibilities concerning psycho-social risks and has implemented a ‘name and shame’ policy for those companies which fail to do so.
Other practical steps include training managers to identify, assess and respond to potential situations concerning stress in the workplace, as well as having a clear, comprehensive policy for handling complaints or allegations of stress and harassment. It is also important that any such complaints are dealt with by a trained team.