Cass. Soc. 26 May 2010, n°08-43152

"The elements constitutive of psychological harassment can be established over a short period of time" is the latest edict given by the French Supreme Court (la Cour de Cassation) in this contentious area already peppered with case law.

In this case, an employee working in vehicle purchase and sales was given, on his return to work following prolonged sick leave, menial tasks such as goods handling. He was also subjected to threats and degrading comments from his employer.

The Court of Appeal ruled that the period over which the alleged acts took place was too short for psychological harassment to be established, and rejected the claim for damages brought by the employee for the harm he claimed to have suffered. This finding, according to the Supreme Court Judges, was incorrect. They held that psychological harassment could be established even where it takes place over a short period of time.

This unsurprising decision by the French Supreme Court has been widely written about, some authors judging the decision as "pioneering"… It is true that it was the first time that the Supreme Court has ruled that the element of temporality is not a decisive factor in establishing psychological harassment.

However, this decision is, after all, simply a strict application of the law. Article L.1152-1 of the French employment code (Code du travail) which defines psychological harassment does not impose any conditions in relation to the length of time. Could we therefore conclude that acts committed over a very short period, a week or why not a day, run the risk of being characterised as psychological harassment? The question remains open.

Nevertheless, it seems as though the debate is situated elsewhere. It is argued that the central issue is not the repetition of acts, but of the impact of those acts on an employee’s rights, dignity, health or professional future.