We have all heard of the civil tort of intentional infliction of emotions distress.  Indeed, jurisdictions all over the world have assigned financial liability upon those individuals who engage in activity that some label as bullying.  Yet few places have gone as far as to place criminal sanctions on individuals who bully or harass others.  However, that may soon change in Paris, France where a court finished hearing arguments today against a telecom company whose executives’ actions of bullying employees was so bad that in some cases it led to people committing suicide rather than face another day at work.

Prosecutors for the French government argued that judges should find executives guilty of “moral harassment.” They are seeking a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $16,000.00 fine.  The testimony elicited today revealed details of purposeful and systematic bullying aimed at forcing employees to quit their job so the company could turn a profit. The decision handed down in Paris could create precedent holding company executives personally and criminally liable for “strategic harassment” designed at forcing workers to quit.

Evidence showed that between 2008 and 2009, thirty-five employees committed suicide because of the executive’s actions.  Employees would face multiple moves in a single year; change of job duties without input; and degrading comments against employees aimed at undermining their confidence.  Many of the individuals who killed themselves wrote suicide notes indicating the company had caused their lives to be unlivable.

Seven former executives from the company, including the CEO as well as the head of human resources, are accused of facilitating the toxic work environment as a method to improve the overall profitability of the company.  The telecom giant had previously been a government entity but was privatized in the late 2000’s.  In order to obtain profitability, it was determined that 22,000 employees needed to go. However, because these employees were granted protections from their status as previous government workers, they could not simply be fired.  Rather they had to quit on their own thus setting up the battle between labor and management.

The accused individuals have denied the charges.  However, the CEO did admit to making unusual statements including that he would “get people to leave one way or another, either through the window or the door.” He further stated that “The transformations a business has to go through aren’t pleasant; that’s just the way it is. There’s nothing I could have done.”

A ruling is not expected until December but no matter what the judges decide the decision will have repercussion felt throughout jurisprudence globally.  The precedent set by the decision could be felt in places that have attempted to regulate online bullying and harassment such as Florida and other states in our country.

-By Marc Consalo, Director of the Center for Law and Policy

www.theguardian.com